Tag Archives | reducing plastic usage

Pooping on Mount Whitney

At 14,505 feet, Mount Whitney watches, serene and deceptively inaccessible, over the Owens Valley. The tallest peak in the lower 48 states, it is a desirable destination for so many hikers and climbers that a permit quota system had to be enacted. Not only is the mountain big enough to feel unique and simple enough to be “peak-bagged” by the layman, but you can climb it in as little as a day. Compare that to Denali (two to three weeks) or Everest (nearly six weeks), and you can see the allure.

Hiking up the trail on Wednesday, June 6th, I knew we were most likely too early in the season to make it to the summit. Still, the day was lovely. The sun shone brightly on blue sky, grey rock, and white snowy patches, and after having hiked for four hours in the dark, we were enjoying the sharp sun-to-shade contrast and, even more, the tiny alpine flowers which, I was delighted to discover, had began to bloom.

As I bent to take a photo of one intricate violet bloom which was growing, like a miracle, on a shelf in the rock face, I noticed something which did not seem nature-made had been stashed right next to it. A bulky black plastic bag, tied into a knot and weighed down by a big rock, was almost perfectly hidden beside the flower.

The little flower next to the secreted WAG bag

Once upon a time, when only a few people climbed Mount Whitney, there was little need for regulations and rules. Today, however, the land surrounding the trail is heavily impacted by human traffic, including the waste that said human traffic leaves. In 2004, the Forest Service removed two composting toilets and one pit toilet from the trail camps and the summit of Mount Whitney. The toilets required maintenance, which in turn required helicopters to fly in and out of the area — a big deal when the area is a federally protected Wilderness. A new solution had to be found.

Enter the WAG bag.

On Monday, June 4th, Karen, Ross, and I went to claim our permit at the visitor center in Lone Pine. We each received from the smiling ranger a rectangular tag with the date of our climb and a plastic-wrapped WAG bag. The ranger then asked if we had ever used a WAG bag.

“No,” we replied, shifting in place.

The ranger turned around and, in one swift motion, collected a demonstration kit. “You spread this out,” he said, “and poop here, and pee a little which activates the sawdust, and then you put it here, and tie it up like this, and,” he added triumphantly, “they are reusable!”

WAG stands for Waste, Alleviation, and Gelling, an unappetizing name. Once open, the bag is bulky and not exactly scent-proof, making it uninviting to hang from your pack or, worse, place inside. Perhaps this is why we saw several of these bags deserted on the trail. Whether behind or under rocks or unashamedly out in the open, hikers on the Mount Whitney Trail make no fuss about leaving their poop — nicely bagged — behind.

I see similar bags frequently on the trails by my house, sometimes even on the street. Owners collect poop, this time their dog’s, and leave the bag behind, adding — it seems to me — littering to negligence.

Sadly, pooping all over the place is not the only way we pollute our world. A headline from the New York Times reads, “The Chemical Industry Scores a Big Win at the E.P.A.” Turns out, as of a few days ago, when evaluating new chemicals, the industry need worry only about chemicals in direct contact with humans, for example, in the workplace. The impact of potentially-toxic chemicals on the environment, our water, air, and land, need not necessarily be examined.

Water is everywhere on the Mount Whitney Trail.

Perhaps I am in a minority, but to me these are all examples of a nearsightedness almost unbearable to behold. Human poop as well as dog poop contaminates water and soil, sending, moreover, (in the case of Whitney) an unpleasant odor into the pure, rarified air of higher elevations. The plastic bags, whether compostable, recyclable, or not, are not meant to be left out on the trail and end up contaminating the environment, a hazard to water, air, soil, and wildlife. Need I mention they are unsightly as well? Seven billion of us poop and pee every day and flush the toilet to make it disappear. Except, of course, that it does not. Neither do the compound chemicals which we release into the world.

Perhaps if we cared enough about the impact of all this poop, if we educated ourselves about how this poop affects our environment — our water, our air, our soil — we would not be so callous about allowing toxic chemicals to enter into the air, soil and water either. Perhaps if we took the trouble and accepted the inconvenience of carrying our poop out the eleven steep and difficult miles of the Mount Whitney Trail, we’d be willing to do a lot more to make sure our children do not end up drinking lead in their water, eating toxins in their food, or breathing yet other poisons in their air.

It all starts at home, in the privacy of our thoughts. We have all made these mistakes. We have all — I am ready to bet — pooped where we shouldn’t, peed too close to a stream, thrown away plastic we could have recycled. Perhaps it is time not to beat our chests with guilt but to stand up and say: I can do better.

I can reduce, reuse, and recycle.

I can be more conscious with my shopping choices.

I can pick up after my dog and dispose of the poop responsibly.

And I can do the same for my own, when out hiking and backpacking.

While looking for the acronym WAG online, I found out its name is being changed (and trademarked) to “Go Anywhere Toilet Kit.” I wonder if, perhaps, the organization producing these kits should not reconsider the name. Toilet Kit sounds too much to me like something stationary. Perhaps “Carry with you human doodoo bag” would be better. Or, “Dispose responsibly take-along pooper bag?”

What do you think? Can you come up with a better name?

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The Silent Extinction of the Giraffe

Giraffes have been in the news lately. The birth of a male baby giraffe at Animal Adventure Park in Upstate New York had giraffe fans from all over the world in ecstasy, only for this happy news to be overcast by bigger, less enjoyable news. Giraffe populations are falling. According to the Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF), giraffe population dropped by 40% in the past three decades, while some subspecies have declined by 80-90%. Despite these numbers and the animal’s popularity, the danger to giraffes remains largely unnoticed, prompting experts to call this a “silent extinction.”

Many years ago, I had the good fortune to travel through Botswana and Zimbabwe with my family. We visited several of the area’s wildlife preserves and saw elephants, giraffes, lionesses, wild dogs, and countless wildebeest, antelope and other ungulates as well as colorful fantastic birds. I still remember my first sighting of an elephant. We were driving in a Land Rover and still reeling from our guide having run over a bird, still wary of tse-tse flies, still wondering where exactly we can pee (if we need to) in this wilderness of low acacia trees and wide open spaces. When the vehicle stopped, we looked about us, wondering what was wrong. “Elephant on the right,” the guide explained, and one confused moment later, we turned to the right, and there it was: a giant flapping its ears, staring at us.

As I write this, it occurs to me, it was afraid of us. It flapped and stared, and then, with a snap and a crackle of the vegetation around it, it was gone.

On our final safari day, about to exit the park and head over to Victoria Falls (our last stop on that trip) we saw a large herd of giraffes. They seemed numerous, surreal, like a cloud of gnats except tall and huge and somehow orange against the yellow and grey-green of the African savannah. When we saw the wild dogs several days before, our guide paused for an hour to admire and photograph them. This time, perhaps eager to get rid of us and go home, he pressed his foot on the accelerator, and on we zoomed, passing by the giraffes as though they were a common sight, as though they will always be there for us if we ever came back, as though they were nothing but a blur.

Someone said to me not too long ago: “Why are conservationists working so hard to keep pandas alive? Let them go extinct if they must, but don’t keep them alive in artificial ways and artificial places.” Why, indeed? Why are some people fighting so hard — even risking their lives — to keep the last few giant pandas, mountain gorillas, and rhinos from dying out? Why do scientists and conservationists warn us again and again of the plight of the polar bears, frogs, elephants and bats?

According to experts (see the Center for Biological Diversity or E.O. Wilson’s books) between 30% and 80% of the world’s species could be gone by 2050 — that’s thirty-three years from now. I was born in 1972 and potentially could still be alive in 2050. My son and daughter, born at the turn of this century, would in all likelihood live to see whether this prediction comes true. In order to imagine the magnitude of this extinction event, which some call the Sixth Extinction (and say we’re in the midst of it right now), E.O. Wilson recommends looking around us, and then imagining 80% of everything gone. If outside my window there are live oaks, valley oaks, black oaks, bay trees, poison oak, hound’s tongue, blue dicks (these are two kind of wildflower), madrones, redwoods, and manzanita, this could mean that by 2050 potentially only two of these species would still exist. And this prediction refers not only to plant life, but to animals as well.

Perhaps some can imagine a world without pandas, without dolphins, manatees, or giraffes. Perhaps some think, so what? So what if they’re gone? We humans are inventors, creators. We will make something else beautiful to replace them. Today, some might say, we can do almost anything, and it is only a matter of time before we can create whole new animals from scratch. Some might rejoice at a world without poison oak, or ants, mosquitos or yellow jackets. But to me, and perhaps to you too, our world becomes poorer with each species that goes extinct. I have never seen the dodo or the great auk. The passenger pigeon flew its last flight over the Eastern United States before I was born, and the Steller’s sea cow, a relative of the manatee, floated its last in the North Pacific kelp even before my great-great grandmother was a thought in her mother’s mind. There will never be a dodo or a great auk to replace them. The richness of two-hundred species of frogs and their myriad interwoven contributions to the natural world can never be reproduced and will never be experienced again.

Doing something for the world doesn’t have to be hard or require you to pull out your purse. Commit not to drink from straws and bring that cup to Starbucks in order to reduce your plastic usage (in fact, skip the Starbucks altogether and make yourself coffee at home). Turn off the lights behind you when you leave a room. Go for a walk with a child and teach them about appreciating nature. Or even better, go outside right now and hug a tree or appreciate the song of a bird or the flight of a hawk. We’re doing this not just for the survival of the pandas, giraffes, and golden frogs, but for our own kids, who — has it occurred to you when the estimate of 80% of all that you see around you was mentioned before? — may also be one of the species facing extinction thirty-three years away in an unknown future.

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Sigal Tzoore (650) 815-5109