Saturday, October 1

Why are American national parks filled with plastic? | Jonathan B Jarvis and Christy Leavitt


The writer Wallace Stegner once called the national parks “America’s best idea”, but the second half of that quote is more resonant today: “They reflect us at our best rather than our worst.” In these challenging times, we must look for decisions that reflect us at our best.

National parks like the Grand Canyon in Arizona, Yellowstone and Acadia provide the closest thing we have to experiencing unbridled nature. They also represent our collective decision not to do something in special places that can harm their environment, like cutting down the forest, mining for minerals or hunting wildlife. Over time our understanding of what is the right thing not to do has grown and matured. One of those right things not to do is provide single-use plastics in our national parks.

Plastic trash does not belong in these special places. Yet single-use plastic products are being sold and distributed in our national parks.

Believe it or not, plastic was not used in everyday products until the 1940s. Society functioned without plastic bags, utensils, water bottles and condiment packets before this point. Since then, companies have turned to plastic to create and package just about everything. Think of all the plastic you touch in a day: your toothpaste tube, shampoo bottle, the packaging on your grocery purchases, maybe a takeout coffee cup or food container. Industry has rapidly created a throwaway culture in which convenience, and plastic producers’ bottom lines, are prioritized above all else.

but that does come with a price. Plastic has now been found everywhere – not just in your neighborhood’s streets or along coastlines, but also in the most unexpected of places: in arctic sea icein the absolute deepest part of the oceanin the air of extremely remote mountainsand in the rain falling on our national parks. It’s even been found in most of your food, from fruits and vegetables to seafood, meat, honey, beer, jumpand more.

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Plastic is made to last forever, despite much of it being used for only a moment before it’s discarded. So all the plastic accumulating in our environment is not going anywhere for a long time. It will probably exist far longer than America’s earliest national park, Yellowstone, which celebrates its 150th anniversary this year.

No part of our world deserves to be polluted with plastic, but national parks may be one of the most obviously unsuitable places for a problem that has escalated into one of the planet’s top environmental threats. Americans agree. According to a recent Oceana cock, 82% of American voters would support a decision by the National Park Service to stop selling and distributing single-use plastic at national parks. The National Park Service was created to conserve the natural and cultural resources of these treasured areas. To maintain that commitment, the service and its contractors must stop selling and distributing single-use plastic products and offer refillable and reusable alternatives.

It’s not just that plastic pollution is an eyesore for visitors; it’s also a threat to the wildlife that’s meant to be protected in these sanctuaries. Everything from birds and bears to sea turtles and manatees can swallow or become entangled in the remnants of single-use plastic. Even if it is not discovered by wildlife, plastic eventually breaks up into smaller pieces that can end up in the air we breathe and the water we drink. Scientists are still learning about how this is affecting human health.

Alternatives exist. Plenty of people and organizations have adopted reusable water bottles as a simple solution to the single-use plastic problem. When Jonathan, the co-author of this piece, was the director of the National Park Service, he issued a policy in 2011 that national parks would install water-bottle refill stations, sell inexpensive reusable water bottles, and ban the sale of single- use plastic water bottles. By 2017, 23 national parks had adopted this program – but it was reversed in 2017 by the Trump administration under pressure from the plastics industry.

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It is time to address plastic water bottles and go further, ensuring parks also don’t sell food that requires plastic packaging or utensils, or hand visitors disposable plastic bags for their purchases. All of this saves money for visitors and the parks themselves, which would not have to manage the immense amount of waste that comes from providing these products.

The National Park Service recently confirmed its 19th principal, Charles F Sams III. He and Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland have an opportunity to make history by curbing the amount of unnecessary single-use plastic that’s polluting our nation and contaminating our greatest resources.

Hundreds of millions of people visit America’s 423 national parks every year. Imagine how many plastic bags, beverage bottles, cups, plates, bowls and utensils could be avoided if these attractions stopped selling and distributing them. On top of reducing plastic pollution, Sams and Secretary Haaland would be helping to combat the climate crisis, as plastic has become one of its primary contributors. In fact, it is expected to outpace coal’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

Our parks are meant to offer a rare glimpse into landscapes that once covered all of North America. And the National Park Service has a commitment to conserve these precious areas and the wildlife that inhabit them. It’s time they passed on plastic so we can enjoy our national parks, unspoiled, well into the future.

  • Jonathan B Jarvis served 40 years with the National Park Service and was its 18th director

  • Christy Leavitt is the plastics campaign director for the international ocean advocacy organization Oceana

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