The Plastic Water Bottle Reduction in National Parks

Photo of a empty water bottle with blue sky and clouds in background

Bottled water is advertised as a product born of pristine mountain springs and intended for the health conscious consumer. The truth, of course, is that the life cycle of plastic water bottles has a considerable environmental footprint. The manufacture, packaging, and transportation of plastic bottles requires extensive energy and releases greenhouse gases, as does the capture, treatment and transportation of the water inside the bottles. Most plastic beverage bottles are made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which is derived from petrochemical hydrocarbons. While PET is recyclable, about 70 percent1, 2 – almost 2 million tons- of single-use plastic water bottles in the United States are not recycled, and instead end up in landfills, lakes, streams, and the ocean. Beyond the environmental impacts, the long-term health effects of waste plastic in the environment are not known.

Given these concerns and the National Park Service’s (NPS) commitment to waste reduction,3 NPS Director Jonathan Jarvis introduced a policy in December 2011 that allows park superintendents to halt the sale of plastic water bottles in national parks. As the policy memorandum notes, the environmental impacts from plastic water bottles “may be magnified in remote national parks because of the additional transportation, waste disposal, energy use, and litter removal factors inherent in these locations."4

This policy has a direct effect on concessions operations that sell bottled water. Accordingly, the financial impact of eliminating the sale of single-use water bottles is an important consideration for parks weighing the decision to implement this policy. Since the policy came into effect three years ago, 19 national parks have stopped the sale of water bottles and the impacts at individual parks are slowly being realized.

Zion National Park was the first national park to implement the ban. Zion’s Chief of Concessions Management Jack Burns reports that it has been a positive experience for the park concessioner, Xanterra, and the park. In fact, it was Xanterra that proposed the ban a few years before the policy came into effect, believing that it was the right thing to do, given the mission of the NPS and the company’s commitment to environmental responsibility. Xanterra moved to selling affordable reusable water bottles instead, and the park built water-filling stations that supply local spring water. In 2012, the NPS estimated that the park had eliminated the sale of 60,000 bottles of water which equates to 5,000 pounds of waste plastic!5 Park visitors quickly adapted to the change and now welcome the variety of reusable bottles Xanterra offers, increasing their sales by 78 percent6 (a collapsible bottle is the current best seller). The program at Zion is considered a great success, and has earned Xanterra recognition as an environmental leader.

Parks that have halted the sale of single-use water bottles are using the opportunity to educate park visitors about waste and recycling. Grand Canyon National Park tells park visitors to “Go Green and Refill Your Water Bottles” on the park’s website, encouraging visitors with data points like “Did you know that disposable plastic bottles comprise an estimated 20% of Grand Canyon’s waste stream and 30% of the park’s recyclables?"7 Filling stations like the ones at Grand Canyon and Zion also serve as educational opportunities, providing messages about waste, recycling and water conservation.

The following 18 parks reported to the NPS Sustainable Operations and Climate Change Branch that they have stopped or intend to stop the sale of water bottles:

    1. Arches National Park
    2. Biscayne National Park
    3. Bryce Canyon National Park
    4. Canyonlands National Park
    5. Cape Hatteras National Seashore
    6. Colorado National Monument
    7. Fort Raleigh National Historic Site
    8. Grand Canyon National Park
    9. Lake Mead National Recreation Area
    10. Mount Rushmore National Park
    11. Pecos National Historical Park
    12. Petrified Forest National Park
    13. San Antonio Missions National Historical Park
    14. Saguaro National Historical Park
    15. Timpanogos Cave National Monument
    16. Wind Cave National Park
    17. Wright Brothers National Memorial
    18. Zion National Park

1 EPA-530-F-14-001, Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States: Facts and Figures for 2012. February 2014

2 EPA Office of Resource Recovery and Conservation, Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States, Tables and Figures for 2012. Page 8, Table 7, Plastics in Products in MSW, 2012. February 2014.

3 NPS Green Parks Plan. 2013.

4 NPS Policy Memorandum 11-03, Disposable Plastic Water Bottle Recycling and Reduction. December 14, 2011.

5 NPS Sustainability Success Story, Water-filling Stations at Zion National Park.

6 NPS Sustainability Success Story, Water-filling Stations at Zion National Park.

7 Grand Canyon National Park’s Website, Plan Your Visit.