I hadn’t seen a soul since I left the parking lot at the trailhead. It was exactly how I wanted it. I’d been living in D.C. for a few years at this point and craved wilderness away from the crowds and cars and concrete. I’d headed out to Virginia’s Saint Mary’s Wilderness in the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests for a long weekend of solo backpacking. I got to my campsite the first night and relished the true treasure that is pure nature, away from it all. That is, until something caught my eye.

As the sun descended, its rays of light shot through breaks in the branches, creating glowing shapes on the forest floor. In most of these sun patches, I enjoyed the detail the light brought to various moss and leaves, but in this one that had grabbed my attention, there was something else, something foreign. No greater than two centimeters by two centimeters in size, this object was flat and a shiny silver metallic. I recognized it from the many trail snacks I’d enjoyed over the years – the tiny triangle of wrapper torn off the top of a power bar to reach the good fuel inside.

In the midst of this beautiful wilderness, at an otherwise perfect campsite, was a piece of microtrash.

What Is Microtrash and Why Is It a Problem?

Microtrash, as the name suggests, consists of any little pieces of trash that may have either broken off from larger items or been small to begin with – things like cigarette butts, bottle caps, broken glass, pieces of styrofoam, gum wrappers, and, yes, those little bits of plastic you rip off your snacks to get to the goodness inside.

Microtrash is a problem for many reasons. On my particular backpacking trip to get away from it all, it stood out as a sign of human impact. It detracted from the feeling of wilderness, adding an artificial object to a natural environment. It bummed me out to think about just how much trash was likely tucked into various parts of this great public land. I no longer felt “away from it all.”

But, its impact goes beyond the personal experience of it. Microtrash is dangerous for wildlife. These little bits of plastic and other nondigestible materials stand out to birds and other scavengers. These curious animals then end up eating our garbage, causing sickness and even death.

We also all live downstream, and microtrash can easily travel into our waterways. It is one of the contributing factors to the crisis of microplastics in our rivers, lakes, and streams. The U.S. Geological Survey found that there was one microplastic particle for every eight gallons of Great Lakes tributary water, and an average of 1,285 particles for every square foot of river sediment. This leads to fish, oysters, and other marine life also ingesting large amounts of plastic trash.

How Can We Protect Our Environment from Microtrash?

The best way we can stop the impacts of microtrash is to prevent its spread in the first place. Whenever possible, select reusable items over disposable ones to lower the amount of trash you’re producing overall. This could even mean making your own granola bars and trail snacks at home rather than buying individually packaged food.

If you do need to bring along food in wrappers or are planning to pop the tops of some cold longnecks on your river trip, make sure to be extra careful not to let these little pieces of trash slip away from you. Have a designated trash bag ready for collecting every little piece of trash you produce. Before leaving any rest point or campsite, stop and take a few minutes to carefully scan the ground around you.

In addition to prevention, we can all do our part to clean up the microtrash already out there, and doing so, it turns out, is an excellent mindfulness practice.

Using Earth Day to Spread Awareness of Microtrash in Our Communities

April 22, 2020 is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. This day of service for our Mother Earth is often celebrated with trail crews gathering across the world to pick up litter from our parks, remove invasive plants, and organize other events to educate the public on critical environmental issues.

Given the COVID-19 global pandemic this year, we have to find ways to give back to our planet while maintaining important social distance. Many of the public lands we may have visited in the past for Earth Day are also closed to protect public health. Luckily, there’s a lot you can do in your own neighborhood to help.

Microtrash isn’t just a backcountry or campground phenomenon. In fact, microtrash is even more common in urban areas and can be more easily swept into our waterways through storm drains. As I’ve practiced social distancing on walks around my neighborhood and local greenways, I’ve noticed microtrash on sidewalks, amidst grass, and even trying to camouflage itself as a fallen spring petal. 

But, if you’re not paying attention, not actively looking for it, microtrash can be easy to miss. This gives us an opportunity to practice mindfulness and really focus our attention. With a seemingly endless barrage of scary news, uncertainty, and stress facing us right now, embracing activities that can center and calm our overactive minds is important. When we can combine this with doing our part to keep our planet happy, even better.

Tips for Celebrating Earth Day With a Microtrash Mindfulness Practice

To complete a microtrash mindfulness practice, you’ll need a few things to make sure you can protect your health while handling the garbage. I recommend bringing along:

  • Gloves
  • A face mask, bandana, or other covering over your mouth and nose
  • Closed-toe shoes
  • Bag for storing collected trash

Picking a Spot for Your Microtrash Mindfulness Practice

Once you have everything you need, decide on where you’ll do your practice. This could be along a local greenway, around your neighborhood block, in a community garden, around a nearby parking lot, or really anywhere that is safe and accessible and doesn’t require you to travel far from your home. 

After you get started and really hone in on the presence of microtrash, you may be surprised with just how much there is in a small area. Given this, as well as the fact that looking for microtrash takes time and patience, I don’t recommend deciding to pick up microtrash along an entire mile-long city trail. Instead, choose a smaller plot that you can become intimately acquainted with and truly spend time looking at closely.

Conducting Your Microtrash Mindfulness Practice

With your plot chosen, the mindfulness practice begins. Take delicate, slow steps around your selected area. Look closely at the ground, in between blades of grass, and on surrounding rocks, branches, or other objects where trash could get caught. Whenever you see a piece of microtrash, grab it, put it in your bag, and then keep looking. Pay particular attention to pieces of microtrash that may blend in because they’ve gotten dirt on them or are next to a leaf or petal of a similar color.

As you’re focused on looking for these little bits of trash, take some deep breaths. Think about how the earth nourishes you and notice where in your body you feel your gratitude for it. It might be a warmth in your heart, a smile in your eyes, or a tingling through your body. Let yourself be fully present with your act of service for the earth. For this moment, it is your only task.

Your microtrash mindfulness practice can be as long or as short as you’d like, but I recommend committing at least 20 minutes to the activity to give yourself enough time to relax into it and become present enough to find the really hidden pieces.

When you’re finished, make sure to dispose of your garbage bag properly and wash your hands with soap and warm water for at least twenty seconds.

We Can Use This Earth Day to Be More Mindful of Microtrash

Life is hard right now being distanced from both the people we want to be with and the natural resources we long to explore. However, this Earth Day is an opportunity to look for ways to support those wild places we love by taking care of what’s right in our neighborhood.

Microtrash is a critical issue facing both our cities and open spaces. By focusing our attention on reducing it where we are sheltered now, we can prevent its migration into the backcountry wonders we’ll be exploring again in the future.


Korrin Bishop is the Managing Editor for the Gossamer Gear blog, LightFeet. She's also the co-founder of Wild Wilderness Women, a freelance writer, Oregon Duck, and group hug enthusiast. She grew up amongst redwoods, has a deep love for Everglades adventures, and was once a Washington, D.C. local before fleeing for more open spaces. Korrin has written for the National Park Service, Sierra Magazine, Fodor's Travel, The Dyrt Magazine, and Misadventures Magazine, among others. Learn more about her work on her website: https://www.korrinbishop.com/