NPS Ban on Bottled Water – "Going Forward" | Citizens Against Government Waste

NPS Ban on Bottled Water – "Going Forward"

The WasteWatcher

For more than a year, Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) has been investigating the National Park Service’s (NPS) ban on the sale of bottled water, believing it was an obtrusive inconvenience to visitors and a waste of taxpayer dollars.  To date, 23 parks have decided to follow NPS Director Jonathan Jarvis’s December 14, 2011 NPS Policy Memorandum 11-03.  This policy allows parks, on a case-by-case basis, and after an extensive review and approval by their respective regional directors, to ban the sale of water contained in disposable plastic bottles.  The stated purpose of the ban was to reduce plastic in the parks’ waste stream and to decrease the carbon footprint as part of the NPS’s “Go Green” initiative. 

Director Jarvis admitted in his memorandum that “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.”  This is true, as the parks still sell other beverages sold in plastic bottles such as soda, juices, and energy drinks.

He also acknowledged that making visitors purchase even “reasonably priced reusable water bottles may be out of reach for some visitors, especially those with large families” and wrote that while the “work of collecting, sorting, and transporting recyclables from parks to regional recycling centers may not always ‘pay for itself,’ … it is still the right thing to do.”

One of the policy memorandum requirements was to develop a “system for annual evaluation of the program, including public response, visitor satisfaction, buying behavior, public safety, and plastic collection rates.”  CAGW wanted to discover if banning the sale of bottled water had indeed reduced plastic in the waste stream, if it was worth the infrastructure costs to build and maintain water bottle filling stations, and how visitors were changing their buying patterns.  CAGW submitted a Freedom of Information Request (FOIA) on March 2, 2016 to Department of the Interior Secretary Sally Jewell for information on how the ban was working, such as waste reduction and recycling rates on disposable plastic bottles, and sales data on all types of beverages sold prior and post the ban. 

CAGW expected the data would be easily available since the parks that instituted a ban should have been collecting this information to be compliant with the 2011 memorandum.  Of course, too often federal agencies do not follow specified procedures or utilize tax dollars in ways that make sense.  The NPS is no exception, as it ironically demonstrated in 2013 when the government was shut down because there was no budget to conduct daily business.  Yet, somehow the NPS found the resources and the personnel to erect barriers and blockades to prevent visitors from simply walking through open-air national parks such as the Lincoln, Jefferson, Franklin Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, and World War II Veterans Memorials.

After reviewing documents provided to CAGW by the NPS between March and early June, it became clear that the NPS had no substantial facts that showed the ban on the sale of bottled water was reducing plastic waste.  But, during a Committee on Oversight and Government Reform (OGR) hearing held on June 14, 2016, a different scenario unfolded.  As described in CAGW’s Swine Line Blog released on the same day, Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.) asked Director Jarvis, “Can you say with absolute certainty, that this ban on plastic water bottles has reduced the garbage in national parks?”  Director Jarvis replied, without hesitation, “Yes, with certainty, absolutely.”  When asked if any analysis had been conducted, he stated, “We collect data on our solid waste management, I don't have that in front of me, but I would be glad to get back to you specifically on the reduction of waste in the waste stream.”

On July 5, 2016, CAGW sent a follow-up letter to the March FOIA request asking the NPS to provide the data referenced by Director Jarvis in the June hearing.  On September 29, 2016, the NPS sent another series of documents; as before, most provided no substantial information that would demonstrate the ban on bottled water was working.  However, some records from Zion National Park, the first park to institute a ban on the sale of bottled water, did provide evidence the park had been separating out and weighing plastics, paper, metal, and cardboard waste products from 2009 to 2015.  Their reports showed that from 2009 to 2012, recycled plastic had been segregated out from other waste materials but not for years 2013, 2014, and 2015.  CAGW asked the NPS in a November 21, 2016 letter why the change was made.

A response came from Zion National Park in a November 28, 2016 letter.  The park’s superintendent noted that “even with the elimination of the sale of water in individual disposable containers, Zion National Park still sees a large amount of single-use plastic bottles in the waste stream” and that “over 60% of the plastic waste recycled in Zion by weight is plastic bottles.”  The park also stated that their recycling company is now using a co-mingling process for plastic, paper, metal, and cardboard.  However, this process is contrary to what was required in the 2011 memorandum.

On November 23, 2016, the NPS sent CAGW the follow-up responses to the questions asked of Director Jarvis in the June 14, 2016 OGR hearing.  The NPS stated, “Due to the complexity of the NPS solid waste stream, the bureau cannot easily measure the reduction in the waste stream associated with the disposable plastic water bottle sales eliminations.”  The NPS further stated that there were environmental benefits that can be achieved through the policy, such as “responsible purchasing” and “eliminating greenhouse gas pollution.”

However, how does the park know the ban is working to reduce plastic waste without following the 2011 memorandum that requires an annual evaluation of the policy?  Are visitors simply buying other beverages sold in plastic containers or bringing in their own disposable water bottles, which may or may not reduce plastic waste?

The response to the OGR further states that, “Going forward, the NPS will evaluate the effectiveness of the policy by calculating how many water bottle sales were eliminated (a process that requires obtaining available historic data from park concessioners), seeking to quantify the usage of filling stations, and by collecting visitor feedback regarding implementation of the policy.”

As CAGW has long suspected, there was no ongoing process to evaluate the success of banning bottled water sales in the parks.  It is also disturbing that Director Jarvis either had no understanding that the parks were not following the protocol laid out in his 2011 memorandum or he was deliberately misleading Congress.

If the ban on the sale of bottled water was effective in reducing plastic, there would be plenty of valid statistics to justify the policy.  It appears that this policy was capriciously implemented, likely out of political correctness and personal aversions to bottled water with little concern on its effect.  Perhaps the Trump administration will agree with the House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah), which oversees the NPS, that the policy is “silly” and “does not make a whole lot of sense.”  It is time for the ban to be deposited in the trash.

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