Yellowstone Struggles With Rising Tide of Plastic Waste

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April 28, 2014

Yellowstone Struggles With Rising Tide of Plastic Waste

New Initiative to Reduce Visitor Plastic Bottle Use to Avoid Need for a Sales Ban

Washington, DC — Striving to meet a national goal of cutting its solid waste load in half, Yellowstone National Park has made great strides on several fronts but is lagging behind on one – reducing its growing volume of disposable plastic bottles which must be hauled at some cost to landfills, according to park documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Without announcement, however, the park has decided to forego a ban in plastic bottle sales and instead is installing free water “filling stations,” handing out reusable beverage containers and launching a public education campaign in hope of reversing the steady increase in plastic wastes.

A number of national parks have ended sales of one-use bottles to visitors, most prominently Grand Canyon, whose planned ban was halted by National Park Service (NPS) Director Jon Jarvis acting at the behest of Coca-Cola, maker of Dasani bottled water and a multi-million dollar contributor to the National Park Foundation. After PEER exposed the role of Coca-Cola, Jarvis allowed the Grand Canyon ban to take effect but instituted a new policy, effective December 2011, requiring a review process for future bottle bans. In talking points issued to park superintendents last month, NPS reiterates its ambiguous stance.

At Yellowstone, documents obtained by PEER through the Freedom of Information Act indicate that the park decided sometime in 2013 to not pursue a bottle sale ban citing unspecified “significant negative financial impacts and potential for negative visitor experience.” However, growing volumes of plastics (principally bottles since sales of plastic bags are banned in the park) threaten to prevent the park from reaching its goal of diverting much of its solid wastes from expensive landfill disposal. Today, plastics –

    • Represent 50% of Yellowstone’s solid waste load;/li>
    • Are the only park waste stream increasing on both a percentage basis and in absolute terms; and
    • Increasingly end up in park trash even as plastic bottle recycling rates also rise and total trash per visitor day is on the decline.

“Yellowstone’s superintendent regards disposable plastic bottles as a necessary evil for reasons of office politics not responsible resource management,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting its own Plastic Bottle Survey showing key concessionaires open to a bottle ban and pointing to other parks which have banned bottle sales without adverse visitor reaction. “If even desert parks like Grand Canyon and Zion can ban plastic bottles without ill effect, why is it beyond consideration at Yellowstone?”

As a voluntary alternative, Yellowstone has launched a “Single Use Plastic Reduction Initiative” –

    • Building free water filling stations throughout the park at visitor centers, comfort stations, campgrounds, general stores, food outlets and gas stations;
    • Making inexpensive reusable containers available to visitors and given to each employee; and
    • Conducting a public education campaign involving signs and various messaging to encourage use of the local tap water and refillable containers.

“While this effort is laudable, it is rooted in the mixed message that plastic bottles are bad for the park and environment but Yellowstone feels consumer convenience is a higher value,” Ruch added, questioning why plastic bottles are needed to enhance the visitor experience at a magnificent place like Yellowstone. “The last time I checked ensuring consumer choice was not part of the Park Service mission.”


Look at Yellowstone’s Single Use Plastic Reduction Initiative

Read the Initiative’s planning paper

See barriers to Yellowstone meeting its green goals

Note wide variety of views in Yellowstone Plastic Bottle Survey

View the Park Service’s official talking points on bottle bans

Examine status of national park plastic bottle sales bans

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