Un-bottling Water

photo of recycling containers in Yosemite National Parkphoto Taneli MielikäinenNational Parks are banning plastic in favor of refillable water bottle hydration stations.

The majestic half-dome of Yosemite. The psychedelic-colored hot springs of Yellowstone. The jaw-dropping ravines of the Grand Canyon…. Piles of plastic water bottles? Until recently, all of these – yes, plastic bottles included – could be considered iconic of our nation’s national parks. In the Grand Canyon alone, the park was recycling more than 900 tons of bottles a year, including plastic ones. But thanks to people-powered change, an estimated 75 national parks –about one quarter of the nation’s total – have now joined the movement to go plastic bottled-water free.

The idea seems like common sense – and it is. Plastic water bottles create litter in our nation’s parks. And the production of the 50 billion plastic water bottles used every year in the United States, including in our nation’s parks, is a major environmental problem. As more and more national parks have kicked out plastic bottles, they’ve also found that adding water stations has increased access to water for visitors, promoting that all-important thing: hydration.

But commonsense has a way of being perceived as anything but when it cuts into the profits of one of the biggest industries in the world: bottled water companies. When advocates started pushing for a ban on bottled water, the industry fought back big time. Through its trade group, the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA), the industry fought the parks’ attempts to ban bottled water, even adding a rider last year to a Congressional appropriations bill. The rider, sponsored by Republican Representative Keith Rothfus, would have made it illegal for the National Park Service to spend federal dollars to implement or maintain bans on the sale of bottled water at any national park. (It seems no coincidence that Rothfus is cozy with the industry: Before proposing this rider, he had received a $1,000 contribution from the IBWA’s trade group and was a featured speaker at an IBWA event.)

The advocacy group Corporate Accountability International, along with 19 other organizations, 30 members of Congress, and more than 350,000 people, worked together to call on Congress to block this rider. While these advocates won, defeating the attempt to undermine the National Park Services’ bottled-water-free movement, the industry succeeded in requiring that the government fund a study of the efficacy of the program. Yes, that means you and I – us, taxpayers – are paying for “research” to prove what national park rangers already know: Banning plastic water bottles reduces waste and helps the bottom line of parks around the country.

Why all the hubbub about the ban? What I think really has the industry worried isn’t just that the bans successfully kick bottled water out of these iconic places, but that the bans spark a broader conversation about whether we really need bottled water in our lives at all – inside, or outside, park gates.

Many of the parks, such as Grand Canyon, have created educational moments about the policy on their web pages and at their reusable water-bottle refilling stations. Park staff report families using the opportunity to reflect on sustainability and the environment – and how bottled water has no place in the equation. Lessons thousands now take home alongside their selfies at Old Faithful and memories of towering Tetons. On this, the centennial of the National Park System, it feels like the perfect moment to toast – with tap water, of course – this huge win on behalf of people and the planet.

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