What Happens To The Wet Wipes You Leave Behind

Picture the Deoriatal campsite: the grand view of Chaukhamba massif, the forest that is abode of many Himalayan birds, the still waters of Deoriatal reflecting the massif. The story behind the lake’s name – which was called so because goddesses used to take dip in it’s waters – lending a certain mystique to the place.

Chaukamba - Deoriatal

When our Trek Leader Satej conducted the routine clean up activity with his trekkers in this serene campsite, he was in for a rude shock. Wet wipes and sanitary pads lying astrew in the valley and it’s rhododendron forests.

Wet wipes

Satej and his trekkers were appalled. This was not something they wanted to pick up. Yet, it was not something they wanted left behind in this pristine place.

Their position was not enviable.

Picking up after someone else’s used wet wipes is a thankless job. However, leaving it behind and making it someone else’s problem is even more dangerous. Let me will tell you why.

What happens when you use wet wipes

Wet wipes, in a bid to make them sturdier alternatives to toilet paper back in mid 2000s, are made of about 80 percent polyester.

This makes them non- biodegradable. So when a wet wipe is thrown into a toilet pit in the mountains or on forest floor, it doesn’t decompose. In fact, thrown carelessly in a toilet pit, it slows down the decomposition of the human waste. The plastic fibres and chemical ingredients drastically reduce the speed of natural decomposition. High altitude is already no friend to the decomposition process.

To give you an idea of how long it takes biodegradables to decompose: a paper bag takes 1 month to decompose. A banana peel takes 2 years.

So, you can imagine, six months later, when we open up that toilet pit to reuse it for the new trek season, we find wet wipes – undegraded, completely intact.

How wet wipes degrade the environment

Now imagine going for a lovely trek to detox from the demands of life in the city – is wet wipes really what you want to see in that soil? This is not just an eyesore.

Soil, as we know, is foundation in any land based ecosystem. With a pollutant like wet wipes in the picture, it will affect the small organisms and plants that live and grow in the soil, the Himalayan wildflowers we all tread so carefully around, the vast grass bugyals, the birds who look to the ground for some food. When toxins are leached into the soil as plastic in wet wipes starts to break down, it is consumed by these birds. So one day, a beautiful trek known for the birds you can spot on the trail, will no longer be a host to that life.

In a more immediate nature of the kind of fatalities wet wipes can cause – left on forest floors and bugyals, they are also a target for grazing animals to eat. It is not uncommon to find cows chewing on them in bugyals or shepherd dogs fighting over a piece. It stays in their stomach causing obstruction in their digestive tract. With no proper facility in the mountains to remove wet wipes from a suffering animal, the animal dies.

This is just fraction of the impact it causes. In an ecosystem where everything is interdependent, the impact moves like a domino effect. What happens in the soil will proceed to affect the water, then air. This article by our Green Trails Crusader Ori Gutin should enlighten you better about the kind of impairment just one pollutant can leave.

All of this is the legacy of a personal choice that you leave behind. This is also something that you have the power to change.

There is such a thing called flushable wet wipes which claim to be “biodegradable”. However, they don’t decompose quickly – especially in the high altitude environment. It also comes with packaging and myriad of chemicals.

It is not just the mountain ecology that they harm. They account for a large amount of non-biodegradable waste in a metropolitan landfill.

They are such a menace that they were called the biggest villain of 2015 by The Guardian for causing blockages in the UK’s sewer system and confusing the poor marine life into eating them. The havoc they caused ensured they would be banned in the UK.

This is why we recommend not using wet wipes back when you are in the comfort of the city either. Just by taking the Green Trails spirit back with you, we can avoid a situation the UK went through.

Sustainable alternatives to wet wipes

Now we know that wet wipes are seen as a magical hygiene fix out in the wilderness – an equivalent to a bum shower. However, there are other effective ways to maintain hygiene while trekking. Toilet papers, for example. Since they are made of paper, they effectively disintegrate in the toilet pit. In fact the carbon content catalyses the decomposition process.

If you feel like wiping yourself before changing into a fresh set of clothes at campsite, a damp toilet paper or a handkerchief/small towel would do the job. You can leave the handkerchief/towel out to dry by fastening it with your backpack.

Do-It-Yourself Wet Wipes

Or you can make your own set of DIY wet wipes to use on a trek or otherwise. Here is a quick video below that should help you through the process.

When the alternative is simple and as effective, the choice ahead is no conundrum.
This simple switch, your individual choice, is what makes all the difference.

As a trekking company, this is what we do to manage the problem at our end. At each of our campsites, we supply toilet paper rolls in exchange for wet wipes. A box with a signboard is set up at all our campsites encouraging trekkers to donate excess toilet paper rolls. This way, trekkers can exchange their wet wipes for a toilet roll and take their wet wipes back at the end of the trek.

Do you think there is anything else we can do to tackle the problem? We would love to hear your thoughts. Drop in a comment.

What you should do now

1. If you want to serve as a Green Trails Intern: Read this article before applying.

2. If you want to work as a Green Trails Fellow: Read this article to know more about it.

3. If you want to know more about Green Trails projects: Read about it here.

4. Check out our Instagram account @IHgreentrails for latest updates.

 

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Aswati Anand

Aswati Anand is a journalist in love with the Himalayas. She is interested in stories of resilience from difficult terrains and sustainable living. When not mooning over the mountains, she can be seen doodling in her sketchbook.

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