Today, a diverse group of more than 300 nonprofits, organizations, and businesses sent a letter to U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland urging her to direct the National Park Service to address the growing plastic pollution crisis by banning unnecessary single-use plastic from the nation’s 423 national parks. The letter, which was aptly delivered during a month observed as both Plastic-Free July and Park and Recreation Month, calls for eliminating the sale and distribution of polystyrene-foam products and single-use plastic bottles, bags, and foodware — including cups, plates, bowls, and utensils — in national parks.
“Millions of people flock to our national parks every year to enjoy incredible experiences of nature, history, and culture. But plastic pollution has been creeping into these special places at alarming rates — a 2020 study found that even the rain that falls in our national parks contains plastic,” said Christy Leavitt, Oceana’s plastics campaign director. “Unnecessary single-use plastics have no place in our country’s most treasured spaces, and Secretary Haaland has the power to ignite that change.”
The move would build on the Green Parks Plan and previous efforts to reduce the sale of bottled water in parks; ensure visitors have access to safe water; and save parks, visitors, and park partners money.
"The science has found that plastic pollution is an epidemic impacting all environments in every climate and region on this planet, causing a health crisis that is slowly building. We strongly encourage the National Park Service to lead in its conservation practices by eliminating all single-use plastics for public consumption in its national parks," said Alison Waliszewski, policy and outreach manager at the 5 Gyres Institute. "This type of leadership will nudge consumer behavior toward better decision-making, encourage inclusion of new and innovative alternatives, and signal a commitment to the health of our fragile ecosystems worldwide."
A ban would also advance the Biden administration’s goals for addressing environmental justice and the climate crisis. Plastic production facilities, incinerators, and landfills are often located in low income communities and communities of color, where they pollute residents’ air, water, and soil.
“The problem is that plastic pollution isn’t just an issue of waste accumulation," said Mariana Del Valle Preito Cervantes with Green Latinos. "Plastics are also manufactured and often incinerated in communities where poor people and people of color live. Plastic pollution is fueling the climate crisis, hurting the health of our communities and the environment. Having the National Park Service eliminate the sale and distribution of single-use plastics in our national parks is a good first step by the Biden administration in recognizing the problem of plastic pollution.”
By eliminating single-use plastics, the National Park Service can help protect these communities.
"The National Park Service has a golden opportunity to illustrate the agency's commitment to environmental protection by prohibiting the sale of plastic bottles in national parks," said Judith Enck, president of Beyond Plastics. "Plastic production poisons communities where it is manufactured and is responsible for major greenhouse gas emissions. This is an environmental justice issue where we need President Biden to lead.”
If Secretary Haaland required such a change, the National Park Service would also be reducing its carbon footprint, as plastic contributes to climate change at every stage of its life cycle. In fact, if plastic were a country, it would be the fifth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases.
“While our national parks are often called ‘America’s best idea,’ single-use plastics are one of the worst," said Julia Cohen, managing director of the Plastic Pollution Coalition. "99% of plastics are made from fossil fuels, and plastic pollutes at every stage of its existence. We urge Secretary Haaland to eliminate the sale and use of single-use plastics in U.S. national parks. Let’s stop trashing our treasures — our national parks!”
This would not be the first time the U.S. government addressed plastic pollution in national parks. In 2011, President Obama encouraged national parks to ban the sale of plastic water bottles. The Trump administration scrapped the policy in 2017, forcing 23 parks that had gone bottle-free, including the Grand Canyon and Zion, to reverse course. It has been four years since the National Park Service has taken meaningful steps to protect its revered spaces from plastic pollution, and it is time to get back on track.
“Washington State's three national parks — Mount Rainier, North Cascades, and Olympic — stand as role models for protecting our lands and providing amazing recreational activities for visitors from around the globe," said Heather Trim, executive director at Zero Waste Washington. "Halting the sale of single-use plastic water bottles is a terrific first step for these national iconic places.”
Scientists estimate that 33 billion pounds of plastic wash into the ocean every year. That equates to about two garbage trucks’ worth of plastic entering the ocean every minute. Just this past November, Oceana found evidence of nearly 1,800 marine mammals and sea turtles swallowing or becoming entangled in plastic in U.S. waters between 2009 and early 2020, and 88% of those animals were from species listed as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
"Plastic pollution has been a growing problem worldwide. We are delighted to have worked with a strong coalition to bring the request for eliminating single-use plastics in national parks to Secretary Haaland," said Melissa Jung, program and outreach manager at Inland Ocean Coalition. "Our national parks, communities and all the watersheds leading to the ocean will benefit from this important conservation effort."
Plastic has been found in every corner of the world and has turned up in drinking water, beer, salt, honey, and more.
“Plastic pollution poses an alarming threat to the health of our national parks, their waterways and wildlife, from Biscayne National Park in Florida to Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska,” said Sarah Barmeyer, Senior Managing Director for Conservation Programs at the National Parks Conservation Association. “We need bold action to protect our parks from plastic pollution, and halting sales of unnecessary single-use plastics within park boundaries is a logical place to start. With viable alternatives, there is no need to continue putting our parks and communities at risk from plastic pollution.”
Recycling alone will not solve this problem — only 9% of the plastic waste ever created has been recycled, and companies continue to push new plastic products into the market. With plastic production growing at a rapid rate, increasing amounts of plastic can be expected to flood our planet with devastating consequences.
"As business leaders, we have a responsibility to the communities in which we live and work—not only to create products and services that serve our people and planet, but to actively use our expertise, experience, and resources to advocate for positive change," said Michael Martin, founder and CEO of r.Cup and Effect Partners. "That’s why we’ve signed onto this letter calling on Secretary Haaland to eliminate the sale and distribution of single-use plastics in our national parks."
"Oceanic Global is proud to support this initiative that aligns with our core programs which are focused on helping businesses implement alternatives to single-use plastics while holding them accountable to global standards,” said Cassia Patel, Program Director, Oceanic Global Foundation. “The national parks, as shared spaces where all are welcome to enjoy the beauty of our natural world, are a natural ally to pioneer best practices for responsible consumption, and ideally go reusable as well as offer freely available clean drinking water! #ReopenWithReuse.”
To learn more about Oceana’s campaign to stop plastic pollution, please visit usa.oceana.org/plastics