The National Park Service thought its good deed of banning the sale of bottled water to keep wasteful plastic from fouling the country’s most cherished landscapes had gone unpunished.
Then Congress stepped in.
The House of Representatives on July 7 approved an amendment proposed by Rep. Keith Rothfus, R-Penn., tacked on to an appropriations bill, which will bring disposable plastic water bottles back to more than 20 national parks.
The International Bottled Water Association, which represents more than 200 bottling companies, including Dasani, Arrowhead, Nestlé, Evian, and Fiji, touted the vote as one for “public health and safety.”
Aside from a direct hit to bottled water distributors’ bottom line, IBWA claims that banning bottled water in places like parks and colleges actually goes against healthy food and beverage choices.
“A ban on the sale of bottled water at the parks simply makes no sense,” said Chris Hogan, IBWA vice president of communications. “Efforts to eliminate or reduce access to bottled water in our national parks will lead to consumers defaulting to less healthy drink options that have more packaging, more sugar, and greater environmental impacts than bottled water.”
Since 2012, iconic destinations like the Grand Canyon, Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, Arches National Park, and Mount Rushmore have all stopped selling disposable water bottles at concessions stands and installed water filling stations around the parks for visitors to fill up reusable bottles instead.
The move was intended to take a big bite out of the park’s waste—20 percent of which was made up of water bottles, responsible for about 30 percent of the park’s recycling costs.
“We came to realize we were in a sea of plastic water bottles. The garbage cans at some parks were overflowing,” Shawn Norton, the park service’s branch chief for sustainable operations and climate change, told The Washington Post.
Parks wishing to nix the disposable bottle had to make sure there were plenty of water refill stations with adequate signage. No site was ever forced to implement the ban, and no site ever banned visitors from bringing their own bottled water into the parks.
Rothfus’ amendment will effectively end the ban, as it bars the park service from using any funds to implement or maintain bans on the sale of bottled water in national parks.
IBWA, which the Post reported has spent $510,000 to lobby members of Congress since 2011, says it has the science to back up its claim that removing bottled water can have negative health affects.
In one study, college campuses that banned water sales saw more sugary drink consumption and more—not less—plastic bottles entering their waste stream. IBWA claims the campus measures were “very similar to the national park sales bans,” though it’s not clear whether the filling station element was part of any of the colleges’ bans.
“These bans, whether in national parks or college campuses, are misguided attempts to deal with a waste management issue that would be better addressed through efforts to improve recycling rates of all packaged drinks,” said Hogan.
So, Why Should You Care? Conservationists argue that the bottled-water backers miss the point. Refilling a reusable bottle uses just a fraction of the resources compared with bottled water use—even when the bottles are properly recycled. And that’s the problem. Only one in five disposable water bottles end up in recycle bins, leaving about 40 million of the 50 million units America consumes each year—requiring 50 billion barrels of oil to produce and distribute, leading to 25 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions—entering the waste stream. That’s leaving landfills clogged and oceans jammed with plastic debris that can have devastating impacts on marine habitats and wildlife.