Lost in the Litter: Restoring the Beauty of Our Natural Spaces

By Sierra Hastings

To bring together my passions for photography and conservation, I wanted to create a photo series that would speak to the impacts of trash in our natural spaces. Thus, Lost in the Litter was born.

When I began working at Cotopaxi as a photographer, I was instantly inspired by the Del Día collection. These wildly colorful bags are made with repurposed fabric—remnants from other company’s productions that are given a second life and kept out of landfills. 

woman dressed in plastic bags in hillside

Similarly to our Del Día fabrics, the discarded materials that I used in my Lost in the Litter series are also given a second life. My goal is to inspire people to look at these materials in a new light.  

If we can restructure our approach to trash—to think of it as an integral and valuable part of a system that recycles and repurposes materials—then perhaps we can become more mindful of how we dispose of these materials. Trash on the trails doesn’t benefit anyone, but when we recycle or repurpose that material, it can become something beautiful. Let’s not let our natural spaces become lost in the litter.

Part 1: Plastic Bags in the Foothills

woman dressed in plastic bags in field

Model: Kel Tran (IG: kel_tran)

My eyes were first opened to the unbelievable amount of trash that collects in our natural spaces on a visit to Death Valley National Park. I had driven to a trailhead, only to find the adjacent hillside completely covered in trash. I’d seen trash on the trails before, but never to this extent. Before I began my hike, I set about cleaning up as much as I could, and have since made an effort to clean up trash every time I’m out adventuring. 

I usually bring the collected litter home to sort out recyclables, and toss the rest. For the Lost in the Litter series, I set aside littered materials that I could repurpose for the ensembles (water bottles and cups, aluminum cans, etc.), then cleaned and sorted them. When the series is complete, all of these materials will be recycled.

Part 2: Single-Use Plastics at the Lake

Single-use plastics, such as water bottles, are one of the most commonly littered items I find on the trails, and these can take hundreds of years to degrade into microplastics, which will then go on to contaminate our water and food sources.

woman dressed in plastic bottles in lake

Model: Betsy Ruch (IG: betsy814)

Clean water is a human right that unfortunately not everyone has access to. For those of us who do have clean water access, it is essential that we do our part to reduce our personal use of single-use plastics to ensure clean water for future generations. Simple actions such as making the switch to reusable bottles or hydration packs can help eliminate the need for single-use water bottles.

Part 3: Aluminum Cans in the Desert

Aluminum cans may be the most frustrating item that I find on trails and city streets. In the wild, it will take cans approximately 250 years to naturally decompose, but if that same can were tossed into a recycling bin, it could be back on the shelves in 60 days!

girl holding discarded aluminum cans in the desert

Model: Sabrina Astle (IG: patti_mayonnaise_)

Aluminum cans are 100% recyclable, and can be recycled an infinite number of times, making them one of the most sustainable materials in circulation. The average can is made up of at least 50% post-consumer recycled aluminum; as more aluminum is recycled, that number continues to grow. So, of all the trash that we find on trails, aluminum cans present the best opportunity to not only restore the beauty of our natural spaces, but to give infinite new lives to a material that would otherwise spend hundreds of years breaking down.


Part 4: Fishing Litter in the River

It was during my time volunteering as a Naturalist Guide at Silver Lake in Utah’s Big Cottonwood Canyon that I became aware of the impacts of littered fishing line. While leading hikes around the lake, I would pick up any trash, and the litter that I came across most here—and this was fairly unique to this area—was fishing line. Along the water’s edge, I would find big spools of it, knotted up and lodged deep into the muddy shoreline, often entangled with fish, hooks, and neon pieces of bait.

Microfilament, the material that makes up most fishing line, takes upwards of 600 years to decompose in the wild, and fishing litter poses a major safety hazard for humans and wildlife alike. Discarded hooks left in the water or along the shoreline can easily pierce and become embedded in skin, while fishing line can entangle and be consumed by fish, birds, and other aquatic wildlife, leading to amputation, intestinal blockage, and death.

Girl covered in discarded fishing line standing in river

Model: Comet Higley (IG: colorful.comet)

Work is still being done to make the recycling of this material more accessible, and some coastal states even offer programs that repurpose recycled fishing line. If this isn’t an option where you live, the best thing you can do is pack out all fishing material that you use or make the switch to more environmentally friendly line alternatives. Bringing a sealable bag with you when hiking, fishing, or just having a fun day at the lake is a great way to ensure that you can pack out any trash you might come across.  

Help Clean Up Outside

Since my first cleanup, I have streamlined my cleanup routine. I always try to keep the following materials in my hiking pack: 

  • A full-size garbage bag

  • A couple sealable Ziplock bags (great for microtrash, cigarette butts, or fishing line)

  • Gloves

  • A garbage picker

woman carrying pack filled with litter


You can do cleanups without these items, but it’s best to always put your health and safety first. Thanks for your help keeping our natural spaces litter-free, and stay tuned for the final two parts of my Lost in the Litter series by following along @cotopaxi


Sierra Hastings is a Del Día Photographer at Cotopaxi with a passion for sharing conservation education through creative photography. (IG: s.marlene_creative)