When national parks started to notice that their trashcans were overflowing with plastic water bottles, some parks began to stop selling the bottles in vending machines and offer free refilling stations instead.
But the bottled water industry pushed back, and lobbied Congress until a Republican congressman agreed to slip a new amendment in a spending bill. If it passes, the National Park Service will no longer be able to ban bottled water sales.
It’s the latest in a massive industry effort to keep the products in parks. “For years, Coca-Cola, Nestlé and their trade associations have interfered at all levels of government to attempt to block or delay national parks enacting bottled-water-free policies,” says Lauren DeRusha, national campaign organizer with the Think Outside the Bottle campaign at Corporate Accountability International.
In 2010, days before the Grand Canyon planned to stop selling bottled water, Coke pressured the National Park Service director to block the ban. Their leverage? Coke is a huge funder of the National Park Foundation. The ban was eventually allowed, after a public outcry.
At the Grand Canyon, like many other parks, bottled water made up almost a third of the trash that the park had to haul away. The National Park Service did the math, and realized that eliminating the bottles would save over 8 million kilowatt hours of electricity and almost 6,000 metric tons of carbon emissions every year.
For its part, the industry argues that if the parks get rid of bottled water, people will start drinking more soda instead. But parks like Zion offer refilling stations for free–and reusable bottles in their gift shop as cheap as $3.29, less than a bottle of Aquafina might cost at the airport. If people want to bring in bottled water themselves, they can also do that.
“We haven’t found a lot of people unhappy with there not being bottled water in throwaway bottles,” says Alyssa Baltrus, spokesperson for Zion National Park. “They can get a bottle and then just fill it up right outside the store. It’s misleading to say it pushes people to drink less healthy beverages–in reality they still get free water, and they can get a bottle just as cheap as most bottled waters.” Hikers can also refill the bottles with Zion’s natural spring water at trailheads.
The industry, which has spent decades using national parks to build their brands, doesn’t want that to happen. “It’s clear the bottled-water industry sees national parks as a prime marketing platform to provide a veneer of healthfulness to its eco-unfriendly products,” says DeRusha.
It started in the ’60s, when Coke launched a “Discover America” campaign named after the national parks. In 2007, the company paid the National Park Foundation $2.5 million for the right to use park logos. Nestle followed in 2010, pouring money into the National Parks Conservation Association.
Now the question is whether the new amendment will pass and push national parks a step back. “It definitely would add to both the trash and the recycling here and hurt the environment,” says Baltrus. “For us, for our recycling program, it has to be transported and moved, about 20,000 pounds of plastics every year. What we’re really looking for is ways to reduce, and then reuse and recycle. For us, not selling that throwaway bottle has been very good.”