Plastic water bottles make up about 20% of the waste and 30% of all recyclables collected in the Grand Canyon National Park, according to an Associated Press article, but that is about to change. The National Parks Service has announced that a ban on the sale of bottled water will go into effect within the next 30 days. Visitors will be encouraged to use refillable containers, although they will not be prohibited from buying bottled water off the park premises and bringing it in with them.
The ban was proposed and approved in spring 2010, and looked set to be implemented January 1, 2011, according to a New York Times article, but then plans were halted, and controversy ensued. Former Park director Stephen P. Martin was one of a few individuals who described eleventh-hour interference by the Coca-Cola Company. In mid-December 2010, Martin told the Times, “his superiors told him … that Coca-Cola, which distributes water under the Dasani brand and has donated more than $13 million to the parks, had registered its concerns about the bottle ban through the [National Parks] foundation, and that the project was being tabled. His account was confirmed by park, foundation and company officials.”
The ban was inspired by a similar ban at Zion National Park in Utah, implemented in 2008, that eliminated 60,000 discarded bottles in its first year and won the park recognition from the Park Service. In an Associated press article from November 2011, National Parks spokesman Dave Barna said that “[t]aking plastic bottles out of the waste stream is unarguably our goal. … This is what we want to do, but how we get there is critical.”
Martin sounded the same exasperated tone in that AP article: “Right as we’re moving to the finish line on a really excellent program, because of Coke’ s influence, it was scuttled.”
Weeks later, the watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) released an unflattering internal e-mail from NPS Director Jonathan Jarvis. It read, in part, “While I applaud the intent [of the ban], there are going to be consequences, since Coke is a major sponsor of our recycling efforts.”
In response to the allegations, a spokeswoman for Coca-Cola told reporters that Coke wanted to beef up the Park’s recycling program, and that “[e]liminating anything altogether is never really an answer; it’s not a solution. … You’re taking away the ability for people to make their own choices about what they eat or drink.”
But those in favor of the ban point to the “filling stations” the park implemented at a cost of about $300,000 as proof that choice is not the issue. Water will be freely available, and sales of soda and juice will proceed as ever.
Given the bad publicity from the December 2010 false start and the reports of impropriety that surfaced in 2011, it’s hard to imagine the park would fail to institute the ban this time around. But PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch continued to apply pressure in statements reported by MSNBC.com on February 7, saying the Parks Service has implemented “bureaucratic hoops” that may prevent other parks from following suit. “While we are happy that Director Jarvis has reversed course, the record clearly shows intense public scrutiny forced this abrupt U-turn — it did not result from a dispassionate or open decision-making process. … We hope this episode will limit the role of corporate donors in park management decisions.”