A Baffling Ban on Selling Bottled Water | Citizens Against Government Waste

A Baffling Ban on Selling Bottled Water

The WasteWatcher

The most essential nutrient for people is water.  This is particularly true when someone is exercising or otherwise engaged in activities that require more than a “normal” amount of water.  Those activities would include strenuous walking or hiking, such as one might do while visiting one of America’s national parks.

That begs that question as to why the National Park Service (NPS) has decided to allow regional directors of national parks to review and approve the establishment of “a disposable plastic water bottle recycling and reduction policy, with an option to eliminate sales on a park-by-park basis.”   In other words, the federal government would make it more difficult to obtain and use the very substance most needed to safely visit and enjoy national parks.

The December 14, 2011 NPS Policy Memorandum 11-03 calling for this new procedure was part of the agency’s initiative, “A Call to Action - Preparing for a Second Century of Stewardship and Engagement.”  By 2016, the NPS is supposed to achieve four goals “to connect people to parks in the next century.” One of these goals is to “expand the use of parks as places for healthy outdoor recreation that contributes to people’s physical, mental, and social well-being.”  The initiative has 14 actions to achieve the four goals, one of which is to “encourage park visitors to make healthy lifestyle choices and position parks to support local economies by ensuring that all current and future concession contracts require multiple healthy, sustainably produced, and reasonably priced food options at national park food service concessions.”

Regardless of the rationale for the NPS policy, only the sale of bottled water is being banned at certain parks’ concession stands.  It is still possible to purchase soda and other beverages in plastic bottles, but no one would consider these liquids to be a “healthy” option compared to water.

NPS Director Jonathan Jarvis admitted as much in the December 2011 policy memorandum:

Banning the sale of water bottles in national parks has great symbolism, but runs counter to our healthy food initiative as it eliminates the healthiest choice for bottled drinks, leaving sugary drinks as a primary alternative.  A ban could pose challenges for diabetes and others with health issues who come to a park expecting bottled water to be readily available.  For parks without access to running water, filling stations for reusable bottles are impractical.  A ban could affect visitor safety: proper hydration is key to planning a safe two-hour hike or a multi-day backcountry excursion.  Even reasonably priced reusable water bottles may be out of reach for some visitors, especially those with large families.

In spite of the policy’s self-contradictions and recognized safety issues, according to the NPS, 18 national parks have either stopped or intend to stop the sale of bottled water, including some of the most popular:  Arches, Bryce Canyon, Grand Canyon, and Mount Rushmore.  Zion National Park was the first to take on the initiative starting in 2009.  Instead of bottled water, the parks offer water filling stations and reusable water bottles.  While the sales have ended, visitors can still bring their own bottled water, raising the question about how many plastic bottles are really being kept out of the parks under the new policy.

Whether or not there is any net reduction in plastic water bottles, there is a documented cost for the new water filling stations.  A January 2012 analysis showed that the Grand Canyon National Park began to construct 10 new water filling stations in 2010, which were completed by 2011, at a cost of $288,900.  The park estimated that it would spend about $85 a year to operate and run public health tests for each filling station for a total of $850.

An April 2013 analysis by Zion National Park showed that the park built three filling stations, starting in 2009, at cost of $447,200 with an additional charge of $12,700 for educational back panels.  At $149,067 each, the three Zion filling stations cost more than five times as much as the $28,890 each for the 10 Grand Canyon filling stations.  Zion built an additional water station in 2011 as part of the Temple of Sinawava comfort station rebuild-project at a cost of $4,000.  The Zion report stated that the filling stations’ operational costs increases would be minimal.  For example, drinking water is routinely sampled in accordance with federal and state water quality laws and the park did not foresee the new filling stations adding much in the way of additional costs, except for some extra custodial work to keep the basins clean.

It should be noted that keeping water fountains clean is an important undertaking and should not be taken lightly.  There have been numerous reports on how water fountains are often nothing more than bacteria-laden petri dishes, often filthier than toilets.

Any park that wants to ban the sale of bottled water must submit an analysis on the repercussions of doing so and undergo an extensive review before approval is given by its NPS regional director.  The Grand Canyon National Park, one of the most visited parks in the country, offered a list of pros and cons to instituting a bottled water sale ban.  Some of the pros included less litter and plastic going to the land fill.  The park also felt fewer animals would be harmed trying to eat plastic bottles if they should contain fluids, and that diminished amounts of bisphenol A (BPA), a substance found in some plastics, would be released into the environment. 

The Grand Canyon Park’s list of cons included a risk of dehydration if people did not have access to water and less profit for the park’s concessioners and their partners.  Another concern was that the park’s annual turbidity event, which occurs during the spring runoff, could pose a perception about the safety of the water at the filling stations.  While the turbidity, which is caused by inorganic material suspended in the water, poses no health problems, it does interfere with the disinfection process the park undertakes for its water supply and could increase the growth of bacteria.  The park adds additional chlorine to the water supply and tests the water more regularly for bacteria during this time period, which lasts until June or July.

With respect to the reasons for supporting a bottled water sale ban, the Grand Canyon National Park certainly handles a lot of trash because of the numerous visitors it receives each year.  The superintendent wrote in his request for approval to stop the sale of bottled water that “disposable plastic bottles comprise an estimated 20% of Grand Canyon's waste stream and 30% of the park's recyclables.”  However, the 20 percent is for all plastic bottles, not just bottled water containers, and it is unclear whether these figures have changed since the park’s bottled water ban began in 2012 since there are no updated figures on the park’s website. 

Although Zion National Park banned the sale of bottled water in 2009, an April 2013 report from the park found that, “Despite the fact that ZION has an aggressive recycling and pollution prevention program, ZION still see 61% of all plastic recycled as single-use plastic bottles, by weight.

Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) asked officials at the NPS for any analysis on how the parks’ ban on selling bottled water has worked since its implementation in 2011.  On November 17, 2015, a NPS spokesperson said that the agency undertakes a yearly analysis on waste disposal and recycling, and that a report is expected in the spring of 2016.  However, CAGW has not found any analyses from the years since the policy was implemented nor were any offered by the NPS spokesperson.  This would lead one to suspect it is not working as intended, since protecting the environment is certainly high on the NPS’s list of responsibilities and this was a major initiative.

 In addition to questions about whether or not there has been any reduction in plastic bottle waste, the Grand Canyon supervisor’s concern over BPA is irrelevant since it is not used in reusable plastic bottled water containers or other single-serve beverage products (PET containers.)   Indeed, concern over BPA itself has been overblown.  As discussed in CAGW’s November 2014 Waste Watcher, BPA has been found to be safe to use in food and beverage containers by the Food and Drug Administration since the 1960s.  However, it has become a handy fundraising tool when used by many environmental groups as a bludgeon to beat up the chemical and plastics industries.

There are few statistics on how the bottled-water ban has affected concessioners.  According to the April 2013 NPS report, Xanterra Parks and Resorts, the largest national park concessions management company, sold $78,000 in bottled water in 2007 before it voluntarily decided to stop doing so in 2009 and two years before the NPS edict on stopping bottled water sales.  The Zion Natural History Association (ZNHA), a partner to the park, grossed $34,144 in bottled water sales in 2008.  Now, both concessioners sell a variety of reusable bottles instead.  The lowest priced reusable bottle was sold by ZNHA at $3.29 and it is their biggest seller.  In 2012, Xanterra sold approximately $45,900 in reusable bottles, while ZNAH sold $83,500.

National parks are not the only places that are banning the sale of bottled water.  Concord, Massachusetts, after several attempts, became the first U.S. city to ban the sale of single-served bottled water starting in January 2013.  But many residents of Concord were not happy with the ban.  In April 2013, at the town’s annual meeting, 1,300 residents showed up to consider a petition to lift the ban.  It failed by only 66 votes.  According to the Concord Patch, “many of those who supported repealing the ban spoke about the loss of choice and inconvenience to residents and harm to local merchants who may lose business as residents who want to buy single-serve bottled water must go out of town to do so. …  ‘A forced choice is not a choice at all,’ said Robin Garrison, the petitioner behind the article to repeal the bottle bylaw. ‘Concord’s ban is not leading the way.  We’re trying to drag people.’”

Many colleges and universities are attempting to ban the sale bottled water, as well.  The University of Vermont tried such a ban and it did not turn out well.  In a July 15, 2015 The Hill opinion piece, “Bottled Water Sales Ban in America’s Parks Makes No Sense,” Vermont Professor of Nutrition Rachel Johnson wrote that she decided to do some research when her university required that vending machines and dining facilities stock a 30 percent healthy beverage ratio while at the same time banning the sale of bottled water.  Her research showed that the decision to ban water drove students, faculty, staff, and visitors to purchase more unhealthy drinks.  The number of plastic bottles shipped to the university increased by 6 percent, even though the university had retrofitted 68 water fountains to allow for the refilling of reusable water bottles, provided free reusable bottles, and conducted an educational campaign on utilizing reusable water bottles.

Professor Johnson stated, “these sorts of policies, regardless of the motivation behind their adoption, may result in the consumption of more calories and more added sugars, a perpetuation of unhealthy dietary choices, and – ironically – an increase in plastic waste.  Our study clearly suggests that the NPS bottled water sales ban has the potential to undermine efforts to encourage healthy food and beverage choices and may be environmentally counterproductive.”

So why ban the sale of bottled water and not other beverages sold in plastic bottles?  The most likely reason is that buying bottled water is not politically correct.  For many who believe bottled water is a waste of money, instead of simply following their conscience and allowing others to make up their own minds, they decide to force their values on everyone else.  Others spout off anti-capitalist rhetoric, resentful that companies make a profit selling water.  After all, they exclaim, tap water is free!  Of course, anyone who pays water bills, particularly if they have a large family, know that’s not true.  Others are rightfully concerned about waste disposal; but, instead of banning the sale of bottled water, they should help lead efforts to educate their community to recycle all their plastics, as well as glass and aluminum containers, no matter what food product it once held.

Furthermore, bottled water is only a portion of the total beverage container market share in the United States.  Bottled water is primarily packaged in polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic bottles, which is a highly recyclable material.  According to an October 2013 Container Recycling Institute report, aluminum cans make up 41 percent, PET plastic bottles (water and soda) are 33 percent, and glass bottles are 14 percent of market-share container types.  The remaining 12 percent consists of other materials such as foil pouches or gable-top paper containers.  As for the sales and marketing of products, sodas are at 34 percent, beer is at 26 percent, and bottled water is at 18 percent.  The remaining 22 percent includes beverages such as milk, fruit beverages, tea, wine and liquor.

The effort to ban the sale of plastic bottled water at the national parks and no other similarly packaged products has caught the ire of some members of Congress.  On July 8, 2015, H. Amdt. 617 was added to H.R. 2822, the fiscal year 2016 Department of the Interior Appropriations Act.  The amendment prohibits the “use of funds by the Director of the National Park Service to implement, administer, or enforce Policy Memorandum 11-03 or to approve a request by a park superintendent to eliminate the sale in National Parks of water in disposable plastic bottles.”  The Senate version of the Interior Appropriations bill does not contain a similar amendment.  Whether the amendment’s language remains in the final negotiated bill remains to be seen.

Banning the sale of bottled water in national parks is another misguided attempt by the Obama administration to pick winners and losers in the marketplace and impose its own view of political correctness.  It would be far better and safer for the NPS to allow visitors to have access to bottled water and provide sufficient and appropriately-sized containers to capture trash and recyclable products in order to keep our natural treasures beautiful.

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