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National Park recycle bin

National Parks’ Diversion Rates High Despite Big Challenges

According to research, the NPS’s diversion rates soar above the national average for municipalities and states.

While new Subaru and National Park Service (NPS) research shows 59 percent of national park visitors were unaware of park’s waste management challenges, and many are importing and dumping trash in these parks, the NPS’s diversion rates soar above the national average for municipalities and states. In fiscal year 2015, the bureau diverted 70.38 percent of municipal solid waste at parks (EPA estimates about 34.5 percent of the country’s MSW is recycled and composted). And the park system diverted just over 89 percent of its construction and demolition waste in that timeframe. That’s just over 140,175 tons total of MSW and C&D waste.

But NPS, which manages solid waste from over 400 facilities, is not without its tough issues. And it is implementing initiatives to address them, including programs not only to inform citizens, but to leverage them to better manage trash and pump sustainability of natural resources. 

“Many [parks] are located in extreme climatic environments, remote locations and sensitive and wilderness areas. Limited budgets, coupled with maintenance backlog are issues, and pose challenges to these efforts. Additionally, remote parks face limited markets for recycled content products,” says Jeffrey Olson, a National Park Service spokesperson.

Managing park trash

The NPS has developed what it calls a “robust solid waste management system” that collects, consolidates and transports recyclables and other waste for offsite processing. Many of the parks have composting programs, including for green waste, manure, wood chip and food composting.  

Still, says Olson, as the Subaru and NPS survey reflects, the public does not realize the enormity of the challenge. They do not understand the complexities surrounding recycling, compounding existing environmental hurdles and other ones.

Increasing public awareness

Some individual parks are pushing education programs, which explain benefits of recycling using interpretive kiosks and active interpretive programs. The NPS’s Green Parks Plan (GPP) promotes sustainable activities to lessen the footprint of its operations. Through this plan, working collaboratively with other stakeholders, they are engaging the public. Some GPP initiatives include offering visitors hybrid electric shuttle-bus services, park spring water filling stations and recycling and composting programs.

A Subaru and NPS waste analysis, done in addition to the survey looking at three parks, found a large portion of what ends up as trash is brought in from outside the parks, with volumes of plastic being among the main materials sent to landfills. Other materials include water bottles, bags, non-recyclable or compostable food packaging and paper hot cups.

“While this waste characterization study was confined to three parks, the results do not show anything new with respect to the typical composition of the waste stream within a national park. Much of the waste that we manage is brought in by park visitors,” says Olson.

Addressing imported trash 

A NPS policy memorandum, “Disposable Plastic Water Bottle Recycling and Reduction,” is another attempt to generate public support, focusing on source reduction to save energy as well as reduce both greenhouse gas and solid waste. 

The policy states, “When considered on a life-cycle basis, the use of disposable plastic water bottles has significant environmental impact compared to local tap water and refillable bottles. These impacts may be magnified in remote national parks because of the additional transportation, waste disposal, energy use and litter removal factors inherent in these locations.”

The good news is that 84 percent of those people who were surveyed said they would be willing to work to reduce the amount of trash left in parks.

“The NPS anticipates future waste management communication strategies, which will concentrate on the visitor’s role in preventing waste. At this time, we envision this to be a means to educate visitors on ways they can prevent waste by bringing in less material in the first place,” says Olson.

Subaru, recognized for operating the first zero landfill automotive assembly plant in America, says it will continue working with the national parks to increase diversion from landfill.

Meanwhile, the three national parks that participated in the waste characterization analysis have started programs of their own. Denali in Alaska established a Zero Landfill Youth Ambassador program to help educate park employees and visitors. Grand Teton in Wyoming has employees dedicated to waste diversion, and Yosemite in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains is installing new recycling and trash containers in high-traffic visitor locations.

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