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I'm absolutely harsh when it comes to littering in the woods. After a break I take an extra turn to check if everything was picked up. Someone accidentally left a tissue on the last tour and I put it in my pocket. As we randomly chatted about this "incident", he told me not to care so much about handkerchiefs cause they are perfectly biodegradable. Is this true?

Extra kudos: What about cotton handkerchiefs?

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Does he throw used tissues on the floor of his house and all around his yard? – Erik vanDoren Mar 14 at 16:23
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Consider the possible damage done when animals find our discards. – user2502077 Mar 14 at 17:52
    
@ErikvanDoren It wasn't on purpose. It just fell down from his lap and he overlooked it. – OddDeer Mar 14 at 19:48
    
@OddDeer, ah well, that can happen – Erik vanDoren Mar 14 at 23:13
up vote 43 down vote accepted

It's true that paper tissues biodegrade relatively quickly: this U.S. Bureau of Land Management page estimates 2-4 weeks. However, as the same page notes,

Though most trash and litter in the backcountry is not significant in terms of the long term ecological health of an area, it does rank high as a problem in the minds of many backcountry visitors. Trash and litter are primarily social impacts which can greatly detract from the naturalness of an area.

In other words: the "Leave No Trace" philosophy is not just about ecosystem impacts. It's about, well, leaving no trace :).

Even if someone doesn't subscribe to the tenets of "Leave No Trace", taking the tissue can be motivated by a more fundamental principle, the Golden Rule: I prefer not to see used tissues when walking in the woods, and I assume that most other people feel the same way, so I myself will not leave used tissues behind in the woods.

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There is also that psychological aspect - seeing litter seems to encourage others to litter. – Rory Alsop Mar 14 at 13:49
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Hmm, then why not bury toilet paper? – gerrit Mar 14 at 14:04
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A quick google search suggests that the time it takes for toilet paper to decompose is highly variable. In an arid environment, this page bobspixels.com/kaibab.org/misc/gc_faq.htm says it won't biodegrade at all. – Ben Crowell Mar 14 at 14:21
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even if one tissue was (and its not) a negligible impact, can you imagine if everybody did that all the time? Some places would always have tissues everywhere. Even just as a matter of respect for who comes after... – Erik vanDoren Mar 14 at 16:20
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Follow-up question: are tissues ok to leave if you bury them? – Pyritie Mar 14 at 16:34

There are no exceptions to leave no trace. Either you leave a trace, or you do not, the whole point of leave no trace ethics is to make as small an impact on the environment as possible, this means visually as well as ecologically.

Tissues break down, but the proper method of disposing them would be to bury them in a fox hole. however, if you're digging a fox hole just to bury a tissue, then you're unnecessarily disrupting the outdoor landscape. It would be best for you to at least keep your tissues until you need to dig a foxhole, and bury it beneath your stool. Otherwise, carry it out.

Only lazy or inconsiderate people would drop a tissue on the trail and justify themselves by saying it's acceptable because it's decomposable.

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He didn't do it on purpose. It really was an accident. He just said that it wouldn't be that of a problem (compared to plastic etc.). – OddDeer Mar 14 at 19:54
    
@OddDeer He's not wrong, but I'd still call him lazy or inconsiderate if he didn't pick it back up. – ShemSeger Mar 14 at 20:36
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Absolutes, like "no expceptions" to leave no trace don't work, and trying to pretend such a thing is actually counter-productive. Of course you will leave some trace just by being there. It's therefore a matter of degree, with the impact balanced against what is reasonable and possible to mitigate. By saying "no exceptions", "zero tolerance", and other similar catch-phrases, you actually make it easier for people to ignore it. It can't possibly be done, so they have to break the "rule", so now they're entitled to break it as much as they want. – Olin Lathrop Mar 14 at 20:54
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@OlinLathrop If you're leaving more than foot prints, then you can try harder. The ultimate goal of leave no trace is zero impact, and there are fanatics out there that attempt to do exactly that, they won't even step off the trail and walk on the grass. I'm not one of those types, but garbage is a zero exceptions rule for me. – ShemSeger Mar 14 at 21:02
    
Footprints are a trace, so is your scent, dust that falls off your clothing, hairs off your head, oxygen you consume, CO2 and water vapor you leave behind, animals that did something different just because they saw or smelled you, etc, etc, etc. It is impossible to leave no trace. Most of the things I mention would be acceptable impact for most people, but they are all "traces" of you being there one way or another. I agree about the garbage, but that's not what your first sentence says. Leaving no trace is impossible, so the rest can be ignored too. – Olin Lathrop Mar 16 at 11:59

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