We have a strip of woods behind our house where deer often wander. They've been forced into this relatively small swath of trees due to an overwhelming amount of construction. Occasionally, we'll toss an apple core into the brush for them, hoping they'll find it. If not, we figure the myriad squirrels or birds will be happy with the fruity treat.
But I'm not so sure our jettisoned apple remains are such a good idea.
You've no doubt been walking in the park or on a trail and have seen a banana peel or orange rind lying on the ground. The outdoorsy person who tossed them no doubt thought the fruit remains would biodegrade eventually.
Sure they will. But it won't happen overnight.
A long wait
Search online and estimates vary, but an apple core can take two months to decompose and a banana peel can take up to two years, by some reports. Although that's a mere blip compared to the estimated decomposition time for plastics — 20 years for a plastic bag, 200 years for a straw or 450 years for a plastic bottle — it's not like these food items will disintegrate quickly.
After watching hikers toss a sandwich on a trail, Marjorie "Slim" Woodruff, who hikes and works in the Grand Canyon, set up a small experiment. She put an apple core, a banana peel, orange peels, chewing gum and tissue paper in a cage of chicken wire, wide enough to allow small animals to go in and out. After six months, the orange peels had dried out, the banana peel had turned black, the chewing gum was the same and the tissue had become a blob. Nothing had been eaten or had rotted.
She buried the same items in sand and soil and six months later everything was still recognizable.
"Think about it: Do we eat banana peels or orange peels? We do not. So why would a squirrel? An apple core is edible, certainly, but if it is not part of the animal's daily diet," Woodruff writes in High Country News. "The bottom line is, before we got here, the faunae did just fine on nuts, berries and occasionally each other. They do not need us."
A danger to animals
There's another element of this to think about, too. When animals start to get their food from people, they may stop foraging for their own food in nature.
This is very dangerous, points out the Leave No Trace organization, because animals need a varied diet to get all the nutrients they need.
"When going to the campground or trail is an easy meal of fruit or human processed foods, they eat and get full on single food items instead of a range of food items that all provide different nutrients. So when that squirrel or deer or bird, who looks so hungry, comes up to eat trail mix out of your hand, know that you're putting the animal at risk of a healthy life, a prolonged existence, and the opportunity for healthy offspring."
Food waste also attracts animals to areas where there are a lot of people, says Leave No Trace.
"Food thrown alongside roads draws wildlife nearer to roadways and increases the likelihood they will end up as road kill. Scraps tossed on the trail bring wildlife closer to the trail corridor as they seek out food," the group says on its website.
Suddenly, my apple core doesn't seem so innocent anymore. (Apologies to the deer, but I swear it was with the best of intentions.)
Breaking the law
If the welfare of animals isn't enough to deter you, then what about legal motivation? All 50 states have some sort of litter laws on the books and few actually define litter.
Whether you're tossing banana peels or fast food containers, litter is litter in most states.
In Florida, for example, Fort Myers Police Lieutenant Jay Rodriguez told NBC2 that it doesn't matter what the trash is, especially if it's tossed from a car.
"A banana could sit there for two or three days and look ugly to someone and be considered litter," he said.
Fines vary by state. Some might only charge $100, but a few states fine people more than $6,000 for a first offense.
That's a hefty price to pay for a banana peel or an apple core. Better to keep it with you and throw it away — or better yet, compost it — when you get home.