The environmental impact of poop in the wild vs. poop in a plastic bag

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polar
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The environmental impact of poop in the wild vs. poop in a plastic bag

Post by polar » Wed May 01, 2019 10:01 am

For the last couple of months I’ve been struggling with this question. To set the stage, I used to teach LNT principles (among other things) to groups, so I definitely bought in to the idea. I religiously pick up after my dog, and I PACK OUT THE POOP BAG (and any other trash) to throw into the first trash can I come across. I also use WAG bags. I always countered the “biodegradable” argument with “it’s still trash, it impacts the environment, it’s unsightly”, etc.

But last couple of months, with news the impact of plastic on our environment on a global scale, I started to wonder if some of the LNT principles I believed in are too short sighted. Are we lessening our impact on a smaller scale at the expense of making a bigger negative impact on the global scale?

For one, not everyone pack out the poop bag. We’ve all seen the plastic bags left on the side of the trail. It has gotten steadily worse in the last 5 years. In 2012 I saw a few poop bags here and there along the trail, now they are everywhere. Same with WAG bags. I have not seen it myself, but I’ve read about people leaving used WAG bags at trailheads and wag bag dispensers. That’s not what we’re supposed to do with the bags, but we all know that people do it.

But let’s assume that we’re all good stewards of the environment and we all pack out used wag bags/poop bags and toss them in the trash, now what happens to it? It goes into a landfill. I used to counter the “banana peel” argument all the time, a banana peel will biodegrade in the landfill all the same. But a poop bag is different. It takes hundreds of years for plastic bag to biodegrade, and when you seal poop inside a plastic bag, now it will also take hundreds of years to biodegrade. So instead of something that will biodegrade in at most ten years when buried in the wild or piled into a pit toilet at the TH, we’re putting the same material into a plastic bag, carrying it out and throwing into a landfill where it will stay for hundreds of years. Not to mention we are also using energy and resources to produce these plastic bags, transporting them to stores, putting them on shelves, etc. Yes, poop bag/WAG bags lessen the impact on our wilderness areas (if everyone actually used them correctly), but that seems more for our own vanity. What’s the real cost to the environment on a larger scale? When we started using disposable straws and plastic bags years ago, I don’t think anyone foresaw the level of impact it has on our environment. Poop bags and wag bags were created to solve the poop problem, but I’m wondering if we actually created a bigger problem in the process.

What’s your take? Argument for or against poop bags/wag bags?
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Re: The environmental impact of poop in the wild vs. poop in a plastic bag

Post by LURE » Wed May 01, 2019 10:09 am

My current viewpoint would be that properly disposed of plastic poop bags in a landfill is better than hundred of dogs taking dumps on and near a trail every day. If we could actually measure and show that the plastic poop bags are causing more net negative to the longevity of the ecosystem than unnatural amounts of poop in the ecosystem, then I'd change my mind. Maybe the unnatural amounts of poop isn't a crazy big deal and it's a humanistic vanity problem - that said I think there are certainly localized environmental and wildlife quality problems that do arise. But I actually don't know.

When it really comes to the longevity of the large scale ecosystem, I'd think there are bigger fish to fry, though.

Biodegradable poop bags? I'm down. What's the energy intensity to make them? Worse than plastics? I don't know.

I think pretty much everything is a give and take. Hard to really win while all of us are still existing.

That said, I sure do enjoy existing.
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Re: The environmental impact of poop in the wild vs. poop in a plastic bag

Post by justiner » Wed May 01, 2019 10:30 am

It's an interesting paradox for sure - as is many environmental issues when they're mixed with recreation (ie: loving places to death).

I think the impact on the immediate environment is lessened with wag bags and the like. My biggest worry is contamination of water sources I want to drink out of while hiking/camping- most water treatment is actually for getting rid of what's living in the poop, which you def. do not want to ingest. Think of problems with human excrement in places like Mount Blanc aka "Montagne de Merde"

Piles of poop - either bagged or unbagged are pretty unsightly, too, but to me it's the lesser of the two evils. I think in an alpine-like setting the poop just isn't going to break down all that quickly, so being bagged/unbagged in that perspective isn't going to make the greatest of differences. It's terribly rude to do (please don't get me wrong!). I don't like stepping in it.

If you want to talk about plastic bags and the throwing of them away - let's look past bagged poop. All my trash is bagged, then thrown in a landfill. Saying, "not ok for poop" seems shortsighted. I think the problem with single-use plastic (which a plastic bag for trash essentially is) is when it escapes into the environment, working it's way down to the ocean - that's certainly something to minimize. Could a wag bag make it from a mountain to the ocean? Perhaps - water that starts in a snowfield sure does.
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Re: The environmental impact of poop in the wild vs. poop in a plastic bag

Post by seano » Wed May 01, 2019 10:47 am

My experience with poop bags is that they work well in urban environments, where there are other people around who will see you if you just leave them on the ground. The plastic will take centuries to degrade, but areas with enough dogs would be truly disgusting if everyone just left it lying there. But in the wilderness, and even in the crowded Flatirons, they just get left along the trail, and last a lot longer than bare poop. No one likes carrying a bag of poop, so many people won't.

With humans, I think more education and catholes are the way to go. Sure, you will still see the occasional "poop-cairn" (turd, TP, rock), but that's better than the steady accumulation of plastic bags you get in popular places that require them, like Mount Whitney.

Waxed paper poop bags? :-k That might actually work in cities, where they only serve to transport it to the nearest trash can.
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Re: The environmental impact of poop in the wild vs. poop in a plastic bag

Post by nunns » Wed May 01, 2019 11:23 am

Aside from whatever the answer is to this question, why on earth would someone go to the trouble to poop in a bag, but then leave it on a trail? That makes no sense to me.

Personally I try really hard to poop before I leave on single day climbs, and I have only had to poop on a mountain a couple of times. When that happens, I am careful to be far away from a water source (although obviously water ultimately finds its way into the water supply). Not sure what the best answer will be once I start doing multi-day trips.

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Re: The environmental impact of poop in the wild vs. poop in a plastic bag

Post by justiner » Wed May 01, 2019 11:27 am

nunns wrote:
Wed May 01, 2019 11:23 am
Aside from whatever the answer is to this question, why on earth would someone go to the trouble to poop in a bag, but then leave it on a trail? That makes no sense to me.
I think the issue with pets is that once in the bag, the owner doesn't want to carry it out while on the hike. Sometimes they put it somewhere out of the way to fetch it on the way back, but then forget/get lost/get their arm stuck in a slot canyon
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Re: The environmental impact of poop in the wild vs. poop in a plastic bag

Post by shelly+ » Wed May 01, 2019 11:47 am

weirdo answer.
it's possible to consider alternatives, *if* people are willing to take the time and effort and be inconvenienced by other options.
one solution is to follow a model similar to that of using cloth diapers. scoop the poop into a heavy-duty cloth bag. at the trailhead, dump the waste into the toilet or the trash. if trailheads had composting toilets rather than chemical ones, waste could be recycled back into the environment. if there's no toilet at the trailhead, take the waste home and trash or flush. wash the cloth bag and re-use. there's an element of water waste in washing cloth (it can be dried on a clothesline to minimize energy waste in the dryer), although you completely bypass adding plastic to the landfill.
this solution is totally off the map for most people and i admit to being a fringe weirdo. it takes time and effort for these types of solutions and, frankly, most people can't be bothered. still.... there are choices, if people are willing to make them.
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Re: The environmental impact of poop in the wild vs. poop in a plastic bag

Post by justiner » Wed May 01, 2019 11:51 am

Hmm, I wonder if there would be any issues with composting toilets and wildlife?

And does it get around the problem with poop just not breaking down all that quickly in high alpine environments?

What are the toilets on Longs Peak all about? They just got revamped, so perhaps there were some thoughts on all this.
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Re: The environmental impact of poop in the wild vs. poop in a plastic bag

Post by tmud » Wed May 01, 2019 12:00 pm

Mt Whitney is the only place I've been to that required wag bags. While I see the necessity for them, no one carried them down and they ended up just littering the campsites. I mean, they were absolutely everywhere. That being said, you couldn't really dig to cat hole either, so not requiring them wouldn't work either.

In popular places like Mt Whitney, a compost or solar toilet would probably be the best option. As unsightly as it is, not being able to hike anywhere around camp without worrying about stepping on a wag bag and the added environmental concerns of use of plastic, was pretty unfortunate.

The smokys have a good system for backcountry waste management. All the designated campsites have compost toilets. The Inca Trail in Peru as well.

Best advice seems to be to not share your spots online, direct everyone to the sacrificial trail/mountain (Sorry hanging lake and quandry), and put infrastructure up at popular hikes.
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Re: The environmental impact of poop in the wild vs. poop in a plastic bag

Post by seano » Wed May 01, 2019 12:09 pm

justiner wrote:
Wed May 01, 2019 11:51 am
Hmm, I wonder if there would be any issues with composting toilets and wildlife?

And does it get around the problem with poop just not breaking down all that quickly in high alpine environments?
I've seen signs and heard stories about marmots and squirrels falling into vault toilets, so that is probably a thing. Close the lid and close the door.

In the high alpine, my understanding is that you're supposed to smear it. It's still gross, but the UV will kill the bacteria, so at least it won't contaminate the water. Of course, this method can only work in low-traffic areas.
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Re: The environmental impact of poop in the wild vs. poop in a plastic bag

Post by FireOnTheMountain » Wed May 01, 2019 1:16 pm

No one will like this idea but what if you put your dog crap in, lets say, an empty chips bag ? This bag is going to end up in the dump anyway so why not "re-purpose" it? I haven't bought garbage bags in years and instead use such bags on the regular.

It is an interesting conundrum you bring up indeed tho. Is a reusable grocery bag more eco friendly than plastic bags? Or how about a metal container over those god forsaken starbucks cups? In the long run, I would say yes.

But really all this is moot because no one gives a flying f*ck about the environment and this planet is utterly screwed due to our remarkable laziness and caring only for ourselves. But I do applaud you caring and apologize for the minor soap box #-o
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Re: The environmental impact of poop in the wild vs. poop in a plastic bag

Post by polar » Wed May 01, 2019 1:28 pm

A lot of great points already, thanks to those who contributed to the discussion.

As far as “there are bigger fish to fry”, that’s probably true. But that shouldn’t stop us from thinking about the small stuff too, especially if we don’t know if millions and millions of small stuff can actually become a bigger problem than a big fish. I never thought plastic straws as big fish, but it turned out to be a pretty big problem.

Just a couple of days ago I heard about microplastic particles been found in really remote and pristine places. (EDITED: to add link to NPR story) The science is kind of behind on what the true impact of all those plastic is to our health and to the environment, in the meanwhile, our use of plastic has really exploded all over the world. And it doesn’t have to end up in the ocean for it to be harmful, even if all that plastic end up in the landfill, what exactly does it do when it’s decomposed?
https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and- ... g-our-soil

The point about plastic trash bag is valid. I put all my garage in plastic trash bags to be hauled away to a landfill, I’m as guilty as any. The crux to change people’s behavior is to offer them an alternative that will not cause a lot of inconvenience, otherwise people will always do the thing that is most convenient to them. So to get people to not use trash bag is difficult, because there aren’t a lot of convenient alternatives.

Poop bag/wag bag is a weird problem. Not using a poop bag/wag bag is really the most convenient thing to do, so it should be easy to get people to not pick up at all. However, the idea of “picking up after you pet” and “pack out your poop” to lessen the impact has been drilled into our heads, that a lot of people will deal with the minor inconvenience of picking up dog poop/do their #2 in a bag. Carry that stuff out is a different story, it's a major inconvenience to some (it’s gross, it smells, etc), many just choose to leave it out there. They probably sincerely believe that because they put it in a poop bag, they are doing the environment a favor.
Last edited by polar on Wed May 01, 2019 2:13 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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