Plastic Water Bottles Will Soon Be Off-Limits at U.S. National Parks

The goal is to replace single-use plastics with compostable, biodegradable, or 100 percent recycled materials by 2032.

Plastic Water Bottles Will Soon Be Off-Limits at U.S. National Parks

National parks—like Olympic in the state of Washington—are national treasures. The hope is to keep them that way.

Photo by Artifan/Shutterstock

The U.S. Interior Department announced Wednesday it will phase out sales of plastic water bottles and other single-use products at national parks and on other public lands over the next decade, targeting a major source of U.S. pollution.

An order issued by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland calls for the department to reduce the purchase, sale, and distribution of single-use plastic products and packaging on 480 million acres of federally managed lands, with a goal of phasing out the products by 2032. The order directs the department to identify alternatives to single-use plastics, such as compostable, biodegradable, or 100 percent recycled materials.

“As the steward of the nation’s public lands, including national parks and national wildlife refuges, and as the agency responsible for the conservation and management of fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats [the Interior Department is] uniquely positioned to do better for our Earth,” Haaland said in a statement.

The order essentially reverses a 2017 Trump administration policy that prevented national parks from banning plastic water bottle sales. Only a fraction of the more than 400 national park sites, but some of the most popular ones like the Grand Canyon, had implemented such a ban.

Environmental groups hailed the Biden administration’s announcement, which advocates what some Democratic lawmakers have been urging for years.

“Our national parks, by definition, are protected areas—ones that Americans have loved for their natural beauty and history for over a century—and yet we have failed to protect them from plastic for far too long,″ said Christy Leavitt, plastics campaign director for the conservation group Oceana.

Haaland’s order “will curb millions of pounds of unnecessary disposable plastic in our national parks and other public lands, where it can end up polluting these special areas,” Leavitt said. The group urged the National Park Service and other agencies to move swiftly to carry out changes in reducing single-use plastics well before 2032.

Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) also urged quicker action to address what he called the plastic pollution crisis. “With everyone, from park rangers to park visitors, doing their part we can get this done before the decade has passed,” Merkley said in a statement.

Merkley, who chairs a Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the Interior Department, is cosponsor of a bill that would ban the sale of single-use plastic water bottles in national parks.

Representative Mike Quigley (D-IL), who cosponsored the bill in the House, hailed the Interior announcement as “a huge step forward in the effort to protect our environment and its creatures from the damage of single-use plastics.”

Quigley, who is planning a visit to Yosemite National Park, said he looks forward to learning how the park will implement the new rule.

Matt Seaholm, president and CEO of the Plastics Industry Association, called Interior’s announcement “disappointing” and counterproductive.

“In most applications, plastic products are the least environmentally harmful option, as long as they are disposed of properly,” said Seaholm, whose group represents the entire plastics industry supply chain. He urged improved recycling infrastructure in parks as “a better approach to sustainability.”

Oceana said a national poll conducted by Ipsos in November 2021 found that more than 80 percent of American voters would support a decision by the National Park Service to stop selling and distributing single-use plastics at national parks.

Haaland said the plastics order was especially important because less than 10 percent of plastics ever produced have been recycled, and U.S. recycling rates are falling as China and other countries have stopped accepting U.S. waste.

Interior-managed lands generated nearly 80,000 tons of municipal solid waste in fiscal year 2020, the department said, much of it plastics.

Of the more than 300 million tons of plastic produced each year for use in a wide variety of applications, at least 14 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean every year, and plastic makes up 80 percent of all marine debris found from surface waters to deep-sea sediments, the department said.

Many marine species ingest or are entangled by plastic debris, causing severe injuries or death, and plastic pollution threatens food safety and quality, human health, and coastal tourism and contributes to climate change, the department said.

>> Next: The Last Straw: How the Travel Industry Is Phasing Out Plastic

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