For Immediate Release: Jun 14, 2018
Contact: Kirsten Stade (202) 265-7337
How Park Ban on Plastic Bottles Got Throttled
Misstatements Masked Lack of Current Data or Consultation Except with Industry
Washington, DC — The National Park Service nixed its program for banning sales of disposable plastic bottles using official rationales that were untrue, according to their own records posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The agency undertook no examination of the policy’s effects, and its leadership failed to consult with any of the two dozen parks with bottle bans.
In May 2017, Congress adopted budget language directing the National Park Service (NPS) to suspend a policy allowing more parks to discontinue plastic water sales and undertake a review of that policy and possible alternatives. Rather than conduct any review, the Interior Department, NPS’ parent agency, ordered the policy rescinded altogether that August. The official reasons offered for this action falsely –
- Cited visitor safety, yet more than 1,000 pages of documents PEER obtained under the Freedom of Information Act contain no information on the subject, although documents concede that parks with bans are required to provide visitors with readily available hydration options;
- Suggested that visitors turned to sugary or less healthy beverages to substitute for bottled water while the documents admit that NPS does not track these sales at all; and
- Claimed the policy caused confusion among concessioners but glossed over that some bans were initiated by concessioners and that NPS had received no complaints from them.
“Even our national park system has now become a fact-free environment,” remarked PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, whose organization’s campaign resulted in the now-extinguished 2011 policy. “Not only did these Trump appointees do the wrong thing but they also felt compelled to dissemble as to why.”
In fact, the documents reflect that NPS had stopped collecting any data on the policy back in 2016. The last NPS briefing paper on the subject credited the ban with preventing “disposal of up to 2M disposable plastic water bottles per year” with accompanying savings in energy, landfill space, and tons of “carbon dioxide equivalents.” However, a senior Interior official ordered the briefing paper not be circulated because “It does not reflect the views of the new Administration and will need to be rewritten…”
Last year when the policy was rescinded, 23 parks, including some of the most visited such as Grand Canyon and Zion, had successfully implemented bottle bans. One NPS concessions specialist wrote in an email that eliminating the ban “would mean that Grand Canyon National Park would again become responsible for hundreds of thousands if not millions of discarded plastic water bottles per year that once filled park dumpsters (not just concessioners’ dumpsters) at an enormous rate.”
“Plastic bottles are the single biggest contributor to the surging waste streams in our national parks that now have one less effective tool for coping,” added Ruch, noting that neither Interior nor NPS leadership consulted with affected parks but did meet with the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA) lobbyists. “Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke keeps talking about his desire to empower the field but it is hard to identify a single instance when he has done so.”
In 2011, PEER revealed how Coca-Cola, maker of the largest selling bottled water brand (Dasani), intervened to persuade the then-NPS Director to prevent Grand Canyon from finalizing a long-planned bottle ban. The resulting publicity induced the NPS to ultimately allow Grand Canyon’s ban to take place and to institute a process for other parks to follow suit. Alarmed by the slow but steady growth in bottle bans, IBWA and Coca-Cola lobbied to eliminate the option of national parks going plastic bottle-free.