Is it Smart to Ban Plastic Water Bottles at National Parks?

Trees, birds, squirrels, mountains, waterfalls. These are just a few of the things you might hope to see when visiting one of the U.S.’s national parks. One thing you’d likely leave off that list but you’d invariably discover a lot of anyway is plastic water bottles.

As a sign of the times, these single-use bottles are overrunning parks. When they’re not littered on the ground or polluting the waterways, they’re frequently (and nearly singlehandedly) responsible for filling up all available trash bins. It’s hard to enjoy nature with so much plastic waste in the way. That’s why, in recent years, about 20 different national parks have decided to ban plastic bottles from their grounds.

The word “ban” may be a bit of a misnomer. Park visitors are still permitted to bring their own plastic bottles into the park. No one is waiting at the gate to confiscate water from families. By not selling water bottles, though, visitors are more likely to bring their own reusable bottles and take advantage of the tap water filling stations situated throughout the park. Since stopping the sale of water bottles on its grounds, Zion National Park estimates that it has prevented 5,000 pounds of plastic (60,000 bottles in total) from “entering the waste stream” each year.

What seems like a smart environmental decision is currently under major threat. With little fanfare, Representative Keith Rothfus, a Republican from Pennsylvania, tacked an amendment on to a larger House Interior Appropriations bill. The amendment would prevent parks from using governmental money to enforce water bottle bans. Though the larger bill was expected to pass last week, the vote was ultimately derailed when controversy over the Confederate flag dominated congressional conversation instead.

Because national parks are part of a federal agency, they cannot endorse a position on this particular issue. However, unaffiliated national park conservation groups have spoke out instead, labeling this a case of special interest using its corporate clout to legislate its way toward more profits.

Indeed, the Bottled Water Association has praised the amendment, claiming that water bottle sales promote health and safety of the visitors. It’s not as though the water bottle industry’s points are without merit either. While its interest in this issue is undoubtedly primarily selfishly motivated, that doesn’t negate the fact that keeping Americans hydrated in hot national parks is a major concern. Often, tourists will prematurely run out of their water supply and need to purchase a supplemental bottle to beat the heat. Others come with no water at all, incorrectly assuming that water will be available for sale sporadically throughout the park.

From a public health perspective, not selling water bottles generally prompts thirsty visitors to purchase sugary, less healthy alternatives instead. Obviously, these purchases similarly produce plenty of plastic waste.

With these counterpoints in mind, perhaps it is worth debating whether water bottles should be available for sale in national parks. That means actually discussing the issue — not tacking an amendment onto a larger, more important bill to force it into law without weighing its merits. Hydration is important for park-goers, but so is protecting the natural wonders that people are coming to visit in the first place.

Photo credit: Thinkstock

77 comments

Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus2 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill2 years ago

Why do we always punish everyone for the actions of a few?

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Margaret Goodman
Margaret Goodman2 years ago

On a semi-related note, how come it's no longer possible to use 100 butterflies to save 1,000 square feet of rainforest?

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Jeannet Animal Lover
Jeannet B2 years ago

Thank you

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Melania Padilla
Melania P2 years ago

It is smart to ban them everywhere!!!

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S M.
S M2 years ago

YES!

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Barbara G.
Barbara G2 years ago

All I hear is complaints about plastic water bottles. Why no discussion about plastic soda bottles. There are usually even MORE of them.

Don't know about other parks, but Yosemite has both multiple water fountains AND fill stations around the park. We also have recycling bins for both plastic and aluminum.

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Kasey K.
Kasey K2 years ago

As someone else said, just put drinking fountains around the park at visitor's stations. Parks could also install bottle refilling stations at these areas as well, so if a visitor does bring a plastic bottle in they will at least be able to refill it instead of throwing it out and buying a new one (if they can).

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Muriel Servaege
Muriel Servaege2 years ago

Thank you. people should be used to throw their emply plastic bottles and glasses in the trash. But there should be enough trash cans as well. Plastic bottles are a source of danger for animals and people should be told that, too.

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Paulinha Russell
Paulinha Russell2 years ago

Thank you

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