Washington, DC — Only a handful of national parks have banned plastic water bottles under the new policy adopted last year in the wake of the embarrassing revelation that Coca-Cola influenced agency officials to interfere with a planned ban at Grand Canyon, according to agency documents posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). As a result, mounting waves of discarded bottles will likely prevent the National Park Service (NPS) from achieving its own sustainable “Green Parks” goals for reductions in solid waste and landfill volume.
Just days before a long-planned plastic bottle ban at Grand Canyon National Park was to take effect, NPS Director Jon Jarvis intervened to block it at the behest of Coca-Cola which gave substantial contributions to the National Park Foundation, the fund-raising arm for NPS. After PEER revealed his action and motive, Jarvis, stung by adverse news coverage, reversed himself on Grand Canyon and announced a new policy setting conditions for individual parks seeking to end concession sales of single-use water bottles.
In the year following adoption of that policy, park bottle bans have spread only marginally. At the time it went into effect, three park units had banned plastic water bottle sales (Utah’s Zion, Hawaii Volcanoes and Grand Canyon), while another 8 units never allowed sales. Agency documents state that another dozen parks, including Yellowstone, Grand Teton and Death Valley were considering eliminating bottle sales. Since the policy, none of those parks has moved forward but a small number of others have:
- In Arizona, Petrified Forest ended sales while Saguaro removed its beverage vending machine;
- In Utah, Timpanogos Cave stopped sales and Canyonlands expanded a partial ban park-wide; and
- In South Dakota, Mount Rushmore ended sales of disposable bottles for plain water but continues sale of enriched or enhanced water and other beverages in plastic disposable bottles.
“For national parks setting a sustainable solid waste standard, what was supposed to be a rising tide has slowed to a trickle,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that only Washington’s Mount Rainier has publicly stated that it is contemplated a plastic water bottle ban in 2013.
Plastic bottles are both an ecological and financial burden for parks as between a third and a half of the trash left by visitors in our more than 400 national parks consists of disposable plastic bottles. In response to a PEER Freedom of Information Act request, NPS has offered no analysis of why more parks are not reducing their plastic trash load but several dynamics appear to be at work:
- Abandonment of Goal. In 2010, the draft Green Parks plan called for a halt in disposable water product sales and installation of drinking water filling stations (capable of filling canteens or reusable containers) in 75% of all visitor facilities by 2016. Those draft goals were quietly dropped and the final Green Parks plan substitutes a 2016 goal that parks cut solid waste streams by half though it is doubtful parks can approach this goal without reducing plastic bottle volume;
- Deference to Concessionaires. Although all concession contracts allow park managers to determine what items are sold, the new Jarvis policy makes the impact on concession sales a major factor in whether NPS regional directors approve park applications for bottle restrictions; and
- Sequester Uncertainty. The ability of parks to set aside funds to build sufficient watering stations for visitors is undermined by the fiscal vicissitudes of recent months.
“The anemic progress in freeing parks from growing plastic waste burdens is a failure in agency leadership,” Ruch added. “Rather than going green, the National Park Service turned a cautious yellow.”