When No Garbage Went Camping

One of the great things about camping is that it is a relatively safe way to vacation during a pandemic and pretend for a few hours that the world isn’t currently behaving like a gasoline fire at a fireworks stand full of frogs. So this week we made a short camping trip up to the islands of Lake Champlain.

Moment of Proud Camping Weirdness: hanging “disposable” plastic bags to dry

As anyone whose ever been camping knows, garbage is no small part of the experience. Along with the obligatory playground, nature center, and non-functional bathroom mirrors, most campgrounds also have giant, readily available dumpsters for landfilling all that single-use crap we brought along to keep us dry, clean and fed while we commune with nature.

Yes, it’s ironic. But I understand. When you are camping and you find yourself, say, suddenly and unexpectedly wet, priorities change. Maybe it’s the fact that you can’t actually see yourself in the bathroom mirrors. Sometimes the grit in your socks makes you crazy. I don’t know. Patience, like potable water, is often in short supply. But something about the endeavor of camping lends itself all too well to disposability.

So, rather than using up all the water, and spending precious vacation time washing dishes (I mean, I’m on vacation!), campers switch to plastic plates and cookware. Rather than separate recyclables and use valuable water to rinse them they go right into big plastic bags of trash. Composting? Pretty much out of the question. We feel efficient when we make our regular trips to the dumpster before bed. We’re being good campers! We are keeping the campsite nice, clean, and free of animal-attracting food! So the dumpsters at campsites are filled up with everything you can possibly imagine camping-related: from red Solo cups and oceans of plastic silverware to Styrofoam coolers, whole tents with one broken pole, punctured pool floaties, you name it. They even have signs saying please don’t dispose of weird non-camping-related stuff here like old paint and car parts. I mean heck, it’s free and it’s anonymous, right? So you can tell that people apparently feel justified to throw away juuuuuust about anything here.

But we all conveniently forget about this not very environmentally-friendly aspect of appreciating the Great Outdoors, because so many of us love the Great Outdoors. In our family we like camping so much that a few years ago we invested in a small tow-behind Airstream that allows a tiny fridge, a tiny sink, and a tiny bed to be part of the experience. You can even fold the tiny dining table into another, smaller bed, but now that the girls are older, and tired of kicking each other in the face all night long, they pitch tents outside for more spacious accommodations. Yes, Airstreaming is, by camping standards, what my 15 year old would call “bougie” but don’t worry: we still get wet. We still get sand in our socks, and we walk around smelling like a burnt offering to the god of mosquito repellant.

No Garbage Camping means everything gets either washed, burned or composted

Of course, as we finished packing for this particular trip I off-handedly mentioned to my husband Steve that this camping experience would be especially interesting since, after all, we’d be keeping our campsite garbage-free. There was a short, conversational pause. Then Steve gave me that look he reserves for when he knows I’m about to try something midway between bonkers and impossible, and there is clearly no talking me out of it.

I’m amazed to report, however, that it was nowhere near as hard to camp No Garbage as I actually expected, at least for this particular trip. I found all I needed to do was modify our home system for the much-smaller confines of the camper. Using paper plates and napkins that could be burned up in the campfire saved our limited water supply for the other, more messy and annoying tasks I never would’ve bothered with before, such as washing plastic hot dog wrappers. Our campground had an easily accessible recycling bin for things like glass bottles and ordinary plastic recyclables. For the more difficult recycling I’d have to do at home (such as stretchy and crinkly plastics) I collected these in a plastic bag hung on a hook.

Lastly, I repurposed a large foil-lined potato chip bag as our compost container for things like orange peels and egg shells and folded it closed with a clothespin; this stayed in the camper with us. Fortunately we camped only two nights and so it didn’t start to smell. Also fortunately, we weren’t in an area where we’d worry about animals trying to get to those food remnants. If we had been only in tents, or a more remote or bear-filled area, this would not have been possible.

Foil-lined Potato Chip bags make excellent on-the-fly compost containers

I have to admit I was pretty pleased with myself as I pinned the little washed bits of plastics to our towel-drying clothesline, already envisioning them clean and dry and ready to be sorted at home into supermarket-bag recycling (stretchy) and my large Terracycle box (crinkly).

I thought, I’m doing it!!

Then, because the weather forecast called for zero percent chance of rain, it rained. Our clothesline got wet, our campsite got wet, Ilsa’s entire tent got wet. Now we weren’t worried about drying the little plastic bag the cold cuts came in so much as we were worried about drying Ilsa’s wool sleeping blankets, pillow and two paperback books.

See what I mean? The gods of camping have a way of reminding you you’re in their universe now and quickly making you reconsider your priorities.

Priority-rearrangement notwithstanding, I’m proud to say that by the time we were packing up to head home, exactly nothing from our trip had contributed to that enormous campground dumpster. By some small miracle the food wrappers were mostly dry and ready to be shuffled into my byzantine recycling system. Although a longer trip would surely have presented more serious challenges to my No Garbage agenda (the compost becomes odiferous… the “take-home” recycling refuses to dry… uncooperative weather puts out our campfire and prevents the burning of any paper products…) Still. I felt that sense of victory one has when you manage something, even a small thing, that you weren’t entirely sure was possible.

I’m not sure anyone else really noticed. The kids in their tents had gotten about fourteen minutes of sleep between them, we were all sooty and in desperate need of a shower. Ilsa was cold, Greta had a stomachache, and Greta’s boyfriend Stephen hadn’t been able to post on Tic-Toc in TWO WHOLE DAYS. Suddenly “zero-rain” gave way to muggy, hot, and gross. Then midway home I discovered that the pretty Pyrex refrigerator dishes I had been so delighted to find at a roadside antique barn had fallen in the camper and broken, as if I needed reminding why plastic Tupperware so easily replaced Pyrex dishes for food storage several decades ago.

Aaaand then I cut my hand trying to ascertain the damage.

We may have to give this Pyrex a decent burial

It was a little much and I could feel my eyes getting hot like I wanted to cry. It had been a long three days, and even in a fancy-pants set-up like ours, tears can be a surprisingly common side effect of camping. Sometimes nature— with its sudden bursts of weather, temperature, gravity, and overall lack of spider-free toilets—can be a little much for us people-from-houses.

But no tears came. I knew then that when we remembered this trip we’d forget the cranky moments, thinking only of the funny stories. Or, more likely, that the cranky moments would become the funny stories. We’d recall reading The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy around the campfire, and the amazement one morning of having a pretty, popular, local beach entirely to ourselves.

Seriously- we were the only people there

I may have lost my Pyrex, and a pint or two of blood to the resident mosquito population, but then again I had a bag full of decomposing food and hard-to-recycle plastics. I suppose that’s enough to cheer anyone up.

4 thoughts on “When No Garbage Went Camping

  1. Oh… we always bring washable dishes camping. I never really thought about it; it’s just part of camping to go fetch a couple buckets of water to wash up…
    We have learned to bring a lot of quarters after a memorable year where we needed to run to the laundromat to dry everything…

    1. Oh yes!! The inevitable trip to the laundromat!! A large part of camping for me is keeping track of what’s wet that’s supposed to be dry, and what’s dry that’s supposed to be wet at any given moment.

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