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A handy waste management guide when out in the great outdoors

Updated 18 août 2021

Did you know that 60% of the 17,000 tons of waste that is buried every day in Quebec is organic matter? Fortunately, we are all getting used to recycling and putting more and more of the organic waste we produce at home into the compost bin. And thankfully, this is waste that will not end up in landfills to produce biogas that contribute to the greenhouse effect and global warming.

When travelling or out in the great outdoors, how do we provide a useful second life to our organic waste? How is one supposed to do this in the absence of a three-way collection system? What’s the best way to implement a Bring, Return and Recuperate approach to protecting our ecosystems and biodiversity?

Here are 6 good waste management strategies to put into practice.

1. See the value in your residual waste

Organic matter is made of waste that is biodegradable by microorganisms. However, just because microorganisms enjoy waste doesn't mean that we should serve it to them for lunch. And yet, how can fruit or vegetable peels, nut shells, egg shells or shellfish disturb nature? And why shouldn't wildlife feed on our table scraps, the crumbs we drop, or the food waste we dump with our dishwater?

In fact, it’s very simple: each ecosystem produces everything it needs to maintain its balance. So anything that does not come from a given ecosystem should not be introduced by humans. Since nature is very good at taking care of itself, we should keep our organic waste to ourselves. They will find their use by being collected and composted, not by being used as food for animals.

Sorting is the first step to managing your organic waste when you travel. For starters, bring two airtight containers and clearly identify them:

  • the first container should be used for the recovery of organic matter.
  • the second one is for the collection of final waste (e.g., meat scraps, cooking grease, unsalvageable plastics).
  • the third container can be used for printed materials, packaging and food containers that are not collected before you leave.
  • hazardous materials, such as batteries or stove fuel canisters, should be kept separately.

With experience, you will learn to determine the right size of containers to bring, based on the length of your stay and the size of your group. If you choose to use bags rather than rigid containers, be sure to double up on them to prevent leakage. Opt for a reusable waterproof bag, such as a dry bag, as an outer cover to limit the use of single-use plastic bags. Recyc-Québec has written a useful guide (guide d’utilisation des sacs) to make it easier to choose from the multitude of biodegradable and compostable bags available on the market.

If necessary, a few handfuls of sawdust or other plant residue litter will help absorb odors and liquids from your organic waste. You can find environmentally-friendly, biodegradable litter at all pet supply stores.

2. Recycle at home

A three-way collection system allows compostable and recoverable materials to be processed separately, while sending the waste that can't be processed to the landfill. David Lapointe is the general manager of the Parc régional de la Forêt Ouareau. He is also the director of the Société de développement des parcs régionaux de la Matawinie, a group of seven parks located in the Lanaudière region. When asked about waste collection, Lapointe explains the situation as follows: “Today, our visitors have expectations that we are not able to meet. The ideal would be to be able to offer three-way collection in our parks, but it would first have to be in place in the municipalities. However, municipalities don't always have the population density to provide collection services.

In a park where recycling bins have been set up, it's a no-brainer to empty the contents of your containers. Where such facilities are not available, your best bet is simply to take it home, where it can be picked up for recycling.

Reducing the financial burden of managing waste is a good way to minimize the impact of our visits to these territories and communities that host us. This can be achieved by using our home collection services rather than imposing additional costs on the management systems found on our trips.

>> Check out our infographic: Outdoor recycling bin to learn what to put in the bin

3. Bring back what you brought

Inside the Parc regional de la Forêt Ouareau, David Lapointe sees too much overflowing garbage bins for his taste. The garbage containers are located in places that are not supervised. According to him, people come from the surrounding area to throw away materials and objects of all kinds that should instead be sent to the local eco-centre. In other parks, it is the influx of visitors that leads to overuse of the garbage cans. In both cases, garbage is often left on the ground because of lack of space. The result is that the grounds are littered with bottles, wrappers and soiled containers, which attracts pests.

Returning your waste is still the best solution. You can also:

  1. Improve your preparations to avoid throwing away food.
  2. Plan your menus and the appropriate cooking method.
  3. Limit the amount of perishable food and eat it quickly.
  4. Calculate your portion sizes and provide reusable containers to bring back any excess.
  5. Buy locally.

4. Protect your organic matter

The organic matter we leave behind in the soil and water is far from harmless. Regardless of their state of decomposition, they are just as tempting to animals. An animal that is used to finding traces of food at a picnic or camping site will return regularly.

In their usual state, animals are fearful of humans. Black bears are even said to be naturally rather shy. By associating humans with food, the animals become more insistent and show unusual aggression. An animal will also not hesitate to attack a tent or backpack to get something it has smelled. These human-created behaviours have forced park managers to take fairly drastic measures, especially when dealing with animals that pose a threat to the safety of visitors. These measures can go as far as euthanasia if other means prove ineffective.

Animals find in their ecosystem everything they need to maintain their health. They do just fine without us and do not need our food, which even has adverse effects by causing tooth decay, gum infection, ulcers, etc. Park managers try to keep the animals at bay to maintain the safety and quality of the visitor experience. They are also responsible for protecting the health and lives of wildlife. David Lapointe gives the example of the Baie du Milieu campground at the Parc regional du Lac Taureau, where garbage is stored inside an enclosure so that crows cannot access it.

Everything -- absolutely everything -- that has an odor, needs to be stored day and night. Vehicle trunks or park storage lockers are the safest options. If you're a long-distance hiker, store your food in a waterproof bag and make sure you've mastered hanging techniques. Otherwise, a portable bear-proof barrel approved by qualified authorities is the most recognized alternative. Learn more about this by checking out our seven No Trace principles.

5. Do not mistake your campfire for an incinerator

Campfires are not for burning packaging and food containers. When they come into contact with the fire, these items give off toxic fumes that will add to the pollutants generated by burning wood. The campfire won’t get rid of your trimmings, table scraps or cooking grease either. The temperature of the fire is often not high enough to burn everything, and the next visitor will discover your residue through the ashes. The smell of food will attract pests. Don't be fooled: animals have a keen sense of smell. The prospect of a good meal can entice them to travel great distances.

Bringing your waste back home with you is the best way to avoid leaving a trace, especially as the Société de protection des forêts contre le feu (SOPFEU) and municipalities issue more and more frequent bans on open fires. In the spring of 2021, the ban was extended to one month due to an extreme flammability index. Campers who hadn't planned ahead were quite happy to rent a butane stove at any of the Parc régional de la Forêt Ouareau visitor stations.

Do not mistake your campfire for an incinerator

6. Pick up your food packaging and containers

Plastic is one of the most pervasive and persistent pollutants. A report by the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup reveals that our food consumption habits are reflected in the shores of our rivers and lakes. The report states that “the proportion of food packaging items (bottle caps, cans, coffee cups, straws and more) has almost doubled! This represents 15.3% of all waste collected in 2019, but jumped to 26.6% in 2020.”

According to Recyc-Québec, 65% of the plastic we generate ends up in landfills. A plastic bottle can take up to 1,000 years to break down in a landfill. A plastic bottle lying around will degrade into particles smaller than 5 centimetres because it is made with synthetic chemical ingredients, like polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which microorganisms cannot consume. Fish, birds, turtles and other species may mistake these microplastics for food to the point of malnutrition. They can also become injured, entangled or suffocated in plastic bags, wrappers and containers.

Use your third bag or container to store single-use plastic food wrappers and containers. They have been useful for storing and transporting your food. Now is the time to recycle them, if they are recyclable.

The final word goes to David Lapointe: “Participating in the preservation of the natural environment requires a certain amount of pride, and not necessarily garbage cans everywhere.” We couldn’t agree more!

Happy trails!

 

Danielle Landry sees the popularity of nature and outdoor adventures as an opportunity to take care of Quebec's growing network of regional parks. Danielle founded De ville en forêt with the goal of enhancing Quebecers’ know-how and pride in the practice of responsible and sustainable outdoor activities. De ville en forêt is a partner of Leave No Trace Canada and the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, and a member of Tourisme durable Québec.