Looking At The National Park Service's Goal To Eliminate Plastic Bottles

What symbolic role should America's national parks play in promoting environmental stewardship and sustainability in front of hundreds of millions of visitors a year?

National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis is determined to rid plastic bottles from the national parks, but wants to consider all factors before doing so, the agency's communications chief said today while addressing the uproar over the director's decision to put a hold on a water bottle ban at Grand Canyon National Park.

“Jon Jarvis wants to get rid of water bottles in parks. That’s the goal. We want to do this," David Barna said. "The issue with Grand Canyon is it’s such a big park and it sets such a big precedent."

The issue, though, has taken on the appearance of dollars and cents, the dollars being those made by concessionaires and bottling companies and even those donated to the National Park Foundation. It also has led to a petition drive on change.org, where more than 94,000 people have signed a petition in support of a ban.

Internal Park Service documents (see attachments) obtained by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility seem to indicate that corporate dollars played a larger role in the director's decision than concerns over visitor safety and the Park Service's intent to be a national leader in sustainability, says PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch.

That impression was driven home in an email PEER obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. In it Director Jarvis wrote that while he was supportive in general of the initiative, “there are going to be consequences, since Coke is a major sponsor of our recycling efforts.”

Mr. Barna this morning, while acknowledging the appearance of that email, maintained that financial considerations never played a role in the director's decision to put a hold on the ban of plastic water bottles at Grand Canyon.

“The issue for him was never about money. It’s not enough money to influence anybody. We’re talking about probably less than $100,000 a year from Coke. This is a $3 billion agency," the Park Service spokesman said, explaining that the $100,000 figure was tied to the bottling giant's contributions to help establish a recycling operation on the National Mall.

National Park Foundation officials did not immediately respond to a request this morning for comment on their role in the matter.

At PEER, Mr. Ruch maintained today that the internal Park Service documents demonstrate the director was acting in response to Coke's concerns and nothing else.

“I know he’s pulling the plug” on bottles at the Grand Canyon based on Coke’s displeasure, Mr. Ruch said, adding that the bottling industry was guiding Park Service policy.

To that end he cited a June 2011 email from Jo Pendry, the Park Service's commercial services chief, in which she wrote, "...the Director's view is NOT to ban sale of bottled water, but to go the choice route." "Choice" being that the Park Service provide visitors with a choice to either buy disposable water bottles or use refillable ones.

While Park Service officials previously mentioned safety concerns for park visitors if a bottle ban was implemented at the Grand Canyon, Mr. Ruch said safety was never mentioned in NPS documents or agendas for meeting with bottling companies and concessionaires.

"There is not a scintilla of documentation on that," he said.

A backdrop to this controversial story is the Park Service's "Green Park's Plan," which has a goal of reducing waste in part by offering water bottle refilling stations in at least 75 percent of park visitor centers by 2016, the year the agency marks its centennial. Part of that initiative is also to get concessionaires to stop selling water in disposable bottles and replace them with reusable bottles.

In the wake of that plan, however, the agency's "Concessions office has expressed a concern over these goals and asked the Director to consider the feasibility of these goals as it relates to concession impacts," reads a memo prepared in January 2010 by Shawn Norton, who works on climate change and sustainability issues for the Park Service.

According to Mr. Norton's calculations, not only would a ban on disposable bottles reduce waste and recycling costs, but it also would lead to sizeable savings in electricity usage. As much as 18 million kilowatt hours per year could be saved if 15 parks considering such a ban -- including Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Grand Teton and Death Valley -- implemented one, he noted.

Two parks that have moved in that direction, Zion and Hawaii Volcanoes, have seen mixed results, according to that memo. At Hawaii Volcanoes, where the cooperating association decided to stop selling disposable bottles, the association estimated it will gross $80,000 a year in reusable bottle sales and will net a profit. At Zion, concessionaire Xanterra Parks & Resorts, which came up with the idea of banning disposable water bottle sales, lost $25,000 in 2009-10, according to the memo.

However, the move at Zion reduced the waste stream by roughly 5,000 pounds annually and cut energy consumption in the visitor center by about 10 percent during 2009-2010.

"Due to effective outreach and communication, Zion National Park reports that visitor response is excellent," Mr. Norton noted.

NPS-Bottle Bans.pdf1.04 MB
NPS-Bottles Cost Factor.pdf619.13 KB
NPS-Green Parks Plan Bottles.pdf206.69 KB
NPS-Jarvis Bottles.pdf221.9 KB


It’s not enough money to influence anybody
Statements like this can only harm the NPS

NPS Director Jarvis clearly misrepresented this issue by stating the bottle ban was shelved due to perceived safety concerns. In fact, it is clear from the documents supplied by PEER, that safety concerns were never part of the discussion, the decision involved the potential reaction of a large corporate donor.

At first glance this may seem like a minor issue, but it is not. Director Jarvis is promoting the concept of "partnering" with major corporate donors, who would directly contribute hundreds of millions of dollars a year to the NPS. This new management model is fraught with many ethical pitfalls and issues of conflict of interest. In fact, this issue suggests that the problems have already started.

In this case, Director Jarvis obscured the facts regarding his decision to shelve the bottle program, and in the process, further impugned his own credibility.

This comment was edited to remove unverified and potentially libelous material. -- Ed.

Hmm - should we ban bottles for symbolic yet meaningless (in the real scope of things) purposes or should we allow the bottles which the public wants and in the process get millions of corporate dollars that can sustain the parks and park activities?
Should Jarvis have been upfront in the first place? Absolutely. But his obfuscation is just a manifestation of the PC environment we live in.

Why meaningless, ec? Wouldn't it be great to find a way to reduce plastic waste? According to NPS calculations, the savings in plastic, energy, and dollars would be substantial.

Find a way to collaborate on solving the problem in the national parks with corporate help in a way that benefits all and it would seem to be a win-win situation that could be expanded beyond park boundaries.

Ah, a world without PC!!!!! I know what I want for Christmas, lol. Makes me smile just thinking about it!

"Wouldn't it be great to find a way to reduce plastic waste?"
Sure - but we don't have to get rid of plastic in the process. Its called recycling.
BTW - wouldn't it be great to have a multi-million dollar funding source for the NPS?

"BTW-wouldn't it be great...."
Would that make NPS Leadership more or less insular and separated from the lessons and reality of the boots on the ground and the public they serve? What's more important to the long term health of NPS, funding or leadership? I would offer that it's leadership. Funding is a great inabler of dysfunction so I would like to see the leadership model forced to change if the agency can't do it on their own, then let the funding flow.

While I agree we'll never rid plastic from civilization, I think reducing our reliance on it would be a good deed with many benefits for all. The key, of course, is to not create a new problem by solving an existing one. That's where innovation comes in.

It is pretty cynical and apathetic to recognize that a 100% change is impossible, so why try to make a partial change.

We'll never get China to halt their industrial pollutants, so we shouldn't try to improve our own? Every plastic bottle less available for Timthy Tentpeg to discard on a trail is one less that I then have to pick up and carry out.

It takes a lot of nickels and dimes to add up to a buck's worth of change, and they are more than 'symbolic only'.

The hierarchy with respect to waste is:




Note that "recycle" is last. Thus efforts should first be directed at the first option. A ban on bottled water, while making sure that refillable bottles are available with filling stations, is thus the preferred alternative.

As for a "multi-million dollar funding source for the NPS," we already have one. It's called taxes. There is sufficent wealth in this country to provide for the common good. It is simply a matter of our priorities as a nation that our parks are so underfunded.

Sorry Mike, I don't see the convenience of a plastic bottle as "waste". Nor do I see why you want to confiscate money from others (via taxes) when someone is voluntarily willing to give it.

"a ban on disposable bottles reduce waste and recycling costs, but it also would lead to sizeable savings in electricity usage"

Seems to be a pretty reasonable goal.

Why - if you aren't buying the bottles you don't need to worry aboue the waste, recycling costs or electricity usage.

Could we all be paying a price indirectly, though?

What about the cost of cleaning up litter after careless people toss these bottles out the window? What about the cost of air pollution from generating plants that must produce the electricity to produce or recycle the bottles? What about the cost - perhaps not financial, but a cost just the same - of having some of our scenic places degraded by litter?

I know this probably won't satisfy you, but I'll bet there a lot of us out there who can clearly understand these costs and who are disgusted by them.

Coca -Cola is one of the most thugish international corporations around. Besides aggressively opposing container deposit legislation worldwide, they've also meddled in Mid-east foreign policy, violently busted unions in Columbia, and preempted local farmer's water supplies in Mexico. Camelback and Mike Painter both hit the nail on the head. Director Jarvis's pursuit of corporate cash sets the stage for even more corruption in the already ethically-challenged National Park Service.


I'm not sure I quite follow the logic of your comment. In any case, I was following up on Mike Painter's post, which happens to be in the spirit of Lee Dalton's above. Recycling is a waste of money and energy with respect to the alternative: reusing.

Lee - you want to shut down the production of anything people litter with? Ok no more cans, no more paper, no more tires ...... My experience is that people are for the most part very respectful of the parks and litter is a relatively minor issue. And if people litter, the answer is to punish the litterers not all those that use the product appropriately.
Justin - fine - reuse all you want. But if someone else wants to pay the "cost" of recylcing thats their perogative.


When has any visitor to a national park paid a recycling fee? (Think about where the savings will ultimately come from.)

"When has any visitor to a national park paid a recycling fee?"
When he pays his entrance fee - if not a deposit on the bottle.

"When he pays his entrance fee - if not a deposit on the bottle."

Now see what I wrote in parentheses. You're making my point.

No, I didn't say I want to shut down the production of anything. It's that kind of rather irrational argumentative stance that makes it hard to reach any kind of decent solutions. When an argument doesn't make good sense, it's difficult to counter with much of anything.

As for punishing the litterers, why not do as one eastern state (Connecticut?) has done and place a special sales tax on items purchased at convenience stores? That tax is used to clean up litter based on the idea that experience indicates convenience customers are more prone to litter.

But wouldn't container deposits be a better idea? I remember when I was a kid back in the glass age before plastic bottles when we could collect pop bottles and take them to the store for refunds. Why not do the same with aluminum cans and plastic bottles? Could it be because industry powerhouses pay legislators to not pass laws requiring that?

"Now see what I wrote in parentheses. You're making my point."
You are right - I should have said - when he buys the drink. Would Jarvis allow the bottles if the cost of their clean-up/recycle was more than the income from the sales? Of course not. What ever cost the park incurs is more than covered by the revenue

"But wouldn't container deposits be a better idea?"
I have no problem with container deposits.