End Could be Looming for Single-Use Plastic in National Parks

Arlene Karidis, Freelance writer

January 10, 2022

6 Min Read
Rocky Mountain National Park
Holger Leue/Getty Images

Plastic pollution inundates even remote places around the globe, and lately U.S. politicians and environmental groups are zeroing in on one such type of space hit by this plastic pileup:  national parks, which draw roughly 300 million people a year, eager to come out and explore.

Collectively, visitors leave behind millions of pounds of trash, with a huge chunk of it being plastic, mostly destined for landfill. What’s missed often ends up in lakes, rivers, and larger reservoirs – 88 of this country’s national parks are ocean and coastal lands, a magnet for water-bound trash.

Actually, discussions on plastic litter in national parks are not new; the issue grabbed the federal government’s attention years ago, though with changing administrations, policy has swung in one direction, then in another.

The latest move is Illinois Democratic Senator Mike Quigley’s reintroduction of legislation from the Obama era allowing national parks to set rules to keep plastic water bottles off the lands they’re responsible for, which the Trump administration reversed in 2017. Quigley’s new bill, H.R. 5533 “Reducing Waste in National Parks Act,” goes further than the early policy by targeting not only water bottles but bags, utensils, and other single-use plastics.

Advocates from several environmental organizations recently spoke their piece at a webinar hosted by the U.S. PIRG and Environment America, telling why they are behind this bill.  Congressman Quigley told the story of how he got started on policy around this issue. And he called out stakeholders to use the bill’s framework to push for change at local levels.

As popular as ever, yet strapped for resources, parks are grappling to stay on top of garbage problems, said Sarah Gaines Barmeyer, senior managing director, National Parks Conservation Association.

“Park Service staff and volunteers spend substantial time cleaning trails and waterway litter, reducing hazards to wildlife and visitors, and hauling waste to landfills. This not only costs parks money but distracts from visitor experience,” she said.

Meanwhile, this past summer many parks received record numbers of visitors, generating more trash and more consequential disruption to wildlife and their habitats. The uptick coincides with staffing declines and funding cuts over the years.

“This really gives us a sobering view of the Park Services’ ability to respond to rapidly evolving visitor use challenges, including waste management,” Barmeyer said.

Elizabeth DiSanto from Environment America, a federation of state environmental advocacy organizations, emphasized that, besides impacting public lands and wildlife, plastic waste threatens freshwater habitats and marine life as it travels through rivers and tributaries.

Studies suggest the most polluted parts of major lakes and the Great Lakes are as inundated with plastic and other trash as the most polluted parts of the oceans, she said.

Last year, Oceana, an international organization dedicated to ocean conservation, looked at the health of U.S. water bodies and then released a report disclosing that nearly 1,800 marine mammals and sea turtles had swallowed or become entangled in plastic since 2009. And 88 percent are species that are endangered or threatened by extinction under federal law.

But that 1,800 figure reveals only a piece of the picture, according to Christy Leavitt, Plastics Campaign director, Oceana. “Tens of thousands of marine animals have been observed entangled or to have ingested plastic, mistaking it for food,” she said.

Every year at least 22 million pounds of plastic pollution make their way into the Great Lakes alone, stated Andrea Denshamm, senior director of Policy for Shedd Aquarium.

“The Great Lakes are not only home for an amazing amount of aquatic life … but are also the source of our drinking water. Keeping single-use plastic out of the stream [in these regions] and in other regions is critically important,” she said.

Meanwhile, Barmeyer pointed out, national parks are living classrooms where best practices and technologies can be leveraged to reduce and eliminate plastic pollution and educate visitors on how their actions can “really make a difference.”

“In fact, the Park Service management policies set that expectation that they be a leader in innovation on waste management. So, National Parks Conservation Association has been working to help parks move in that direction by partnering with Subaru on a zero waste-to-landfill initiative,” Barmeyer said.

Together they did three pilots in parks; since their 2015 launch those parks nearly doubled their recycling, diverting more than 16 million pounds of trash.

“However, we must do more to keep waste out of parks in the first place, which is why it’s so important that the Park Service eliminate the sale and distribution of single-use plastics in national parks,” Barmeyer said.

That’s what H.R. 5533 aims to do by calling for a national program where each region eliminates the sale of water in disposable plastic and the sale and distribution of other disposable plastic products “to the greatest extent feasible.”

Representative Quigley referenced a tour of national parks he took his colleagues on shortly before introducing the proposed legislation. He wanted to educate on the impact of climate change and on waste in these spaces.

“We went to the Everglades, Indiana Dunes, Rocky Mountain, Shenandoah, Yellowstone, and Acadia. …” He described some of these spaces as “a mountainside with half the trees as gray skeletons.” 

“I do these climate tours in national parks to try and send a message at a 30,000-foot level. But what I am encouraging my colleagues to do is to take that idea and bring it down to the local level … with climate tours to park districts, forest reserves, state parks … Think of this legislation as a way to wake people up at local, state, and federal levels to this issue around single-use plastics and plastics overall,” Quigley said.

Parks that have taken onus to implement bans on bottled water saw results quickly. He pointed to Zion National Park, which eliminated 60,000 water bottles by stocking reusable bottles in its concession stands and installing bottle filling stations.

A total of 23 parks had successfully implemented bans by 2017 when the policy of the Obama administration was reversed.

In five years leading to the reversal, they diverted between 1.3 and 2 million single-use plastic water bottles, equating to about 111,000 pounds of plastic and 141 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions, reported Miho Ligare, Plastic Pollution policy manager, Surfrider, a nonprofit environmental organization.

Several more parks were scheduled to ban plastic water bottles prior to the reversal.

“Now, here we are looking at restored policy,” Ligare said, but she sees more news that she finds promising.

“The expansion of these policies [to include many plastics] represents a shift in the overall plastic reduction policy landscape to a more comprehensive approach. And we are really excited to see this movement.”

By changing the rules around procurement, which is what H.R. 5533 will work toward, said Denshamm, “we can have suppliers move toward other more sustainable options. The best option is reuse. But another option is moving from single-use plastic to more regenerative solutions.”

Shedd Aquarium transitioned from the purchase of single-use water bottles to refilling stations, which has helped toward a pledge all 25 of its aquariums made just over four years ago to reduce plastic in their business operations. Collectively, they have eliminated more than a million plastic water bottles.

Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) introduced a companion bill (S. 2960) to H.R. 5533.  He said in a statement: “Single-use plastic production threatens some of our nation's most special places. Inaction at this moment is unacceptable if we want to protect national parks for generations to come, and passing the Reduce Waste in National Parks Act is a critical step to avoid further climate chaos and ensure a sustainable environment for all.”

About the Author(s)

Arlene Karidis

Freelance writer, Waste360

Arlene Karidis has 30 years’ cumulative experience reporting on health and environmental topics for B2B and consumer publications of a global, national and/or regional reach, including Waste360, Washington Post, The Atlantic, Huffington Post, Baltimore Sun and lifestyle and parenting magazines. In between her assignments, Arlene does yoga, Pilates, takes long walks, and works her body in other ways that won’t bang up her somewhat challenged knees; drinks wine;  hangs with her family and other good friends and on really slow weekends, entertains herself watching her cat get happy on catnip and play with new toys.

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