According to the brochure we found in our Yellowstone Lake Hotel room, plastic water bottles were banned in the park. Water filling stations were available. Reusable water bottles were sold throughout the park and strongly encouraged. People could bring plastic water bottles in from outside, and large bottles of water were available for sale.
Fantastic! Free water! An effort to keep the park, which is in danger of being loved to death, free of plastic trash!
So … why were cases of single-use water bottles stacked in the corner of the park grocery store?
Just before I visited, the National Park Service had ended their program allowing parks to ban the sale of single use plastic water bottles. Not because the program hadn’t been a success. The park struggles with handling waste, which all has to be trucked out at taxpayers’ expense. Recycling is a pain. Waste had been reduced by a third. Park employees were jubilant.
So what happened?
The National Park Service is run by the Department of the Interior. The ban was revoked less than a month after David Bernhardt was installed as as deputy interior secretary. Bernhardt led President Trump’s transition team for the Interior Department, and the firm he worked for represented Nestlé Waters, a big water seller.
Nestlé denies they did anything to influence the National Park Service decision.
Bottled water companies have fought hard against the program (not actually a ban. Individual parks chose whether or not to participate):
- When the idea was first floated, bottled water companies invested in a public relations campaign to fight it. $2.5 million was donated to the National Park Foundation by 2007, by Coca Cola alone.
- Nevertheless, in 2011 National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis announced that parks would be allowed to ban plastic water bottles.
- Nov. 2011, Stephen Martin, architect of a plan to ban in the Grand Canyon said his boss told him “Coca-Cola, which distributes water under the Dasani brand and has donated more than $13 million to the parks, had registered its concerns about the bottle ban through the foundation, and that the project was being tabled.”
- Jarvis reversed course and announced that bottled water would not be banned in the national parks.
- There was public outcry and much publicity in favor of a ban.
- Jarvis reversed course again and allowed the national parks to proceed.
- 23 of the 417 parks adopted bans, began to educate the public and install water filling stations.
- Companies that sell water continued aggressive pushback. People would buy sugary drinks carried in less environmentally friendly packaging instead! One spokesperson for Coca Cola, Susan Stribling, complained the Park Service was “not allowing people to decide what they want to eat and drink and consume.”
- Between 2011 and 2015, the International Bottled Water Association spent over $550,000 lobbying congress to reverse the ban.
- In July, 2015, Rep. Keith Rothfus (R., PA) introduced an amendment, passed by a voice vote, preventing the National Park Service from using taxpayer funds to implement its 2011 policy aimed to reduce and recycle plastic bottles in national parks.
- The National Park Service conducted a study to determine how effective the program was. It showed 112,000 pounds of plastic saved, a reduction of up to 140 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions, and between 276 cubic yards and 419 cubic fewer yards taken up of landfill space.
That report wasn’t released to the public. It took a Freedom of Information Act request after that ban was reversed before the report saw the light of day. Water sellers claim the study was improperly conducted.
Yes you can buy plastic water bottles in the national parks. Don’t. Bring your own bottle. Take advantage of the free filling stations.
Every bit of plastic we’ve ever constructed is with us still, much of it in landfills and the ocean. This is a tiny, simple way to fight back. Save fossil fuels for things we really need.