National parks to phase out single-use plastics

In a major move, the Biden administration will phase out the sale of single-use plastics across the country’s beloved national parks, wildlife refuges and other public lands, in a multiyear process that will culminate by 2032.

Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland announced this morning that her department will reduce and eventually phase out the procurement, sale and distribution of single-use plastic products like water bottles across 480 million acres. Order 3407 will also direct the Interior Department to identify alternatives to those products that are nonhazardous and more environmentally friendly. That could include materials that are compostable, biodegradable or fully recycled.

Haaland said in a statement that her department “has an obligation to play a leading role in reducing the impact of plastic waste” across fragile ecosystems, including oceans. Of the more than 400 national park sites, 88 are ocean or coast-based.

“As the steward of the nation’s public lands, including national parks and national wildlife refuges, and as the agency responsible for the conservation and management of fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats, we are uniquely positioned to do better for our Earth,” she said, adding that the move “will ensure that the Department’s sustainability plans include bold action on phasing out single-use plastic products as we seek to protect our natural environment and the communities around them.”

Products impacted by the order include bottles, straws, cups, cutlery, disposable bags, and food and beverage containers. Replacements might include paper products, glass, aluminum or bioplastics. In its announcement, Interior emphasized the staggering extent to which plastics waste has become a national problem, with the parks alone dealing with some 70 million pounds of plastic waste annually.

The announcement comes on World Oceans Day, which the Biden administration is marking with a variety of actions that include initiating designation of the deepest U.S. canyon in the Atlantic Ocean, Hudson Canyon, as a new national marine sanctuary (see related story).

A number of advocacy groups are already cheering the plastics announcement. Christy Leavitt, who directs plastics work for the nonprofit environmental organization Oceana, said in a statement that the decision recognizes “the devastating impact single-use plastic is having on our planet” and would be meaningful in protecting the environment.

“Our national parks, by definition, are protected areas — ones that Americans have loved for their natural beauty and history for over a century — and yet we have failed to protect them from plastic for far too long,” said Leavitt, who urged Interior to swiftly enact the change, arguing it would “curb millions of pounds of unnecessary disposable plastic in our national parks and other public lands, where it can end up polluting these special areas.”

Chandra Rosenthal, who leads the Rocky Mountain office for the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, also said the agencywide order was heartening. “We hope that in practice the agencies move more quickly than the mandated 10-year phaseout, so we will continue to push the agencies to make the break from plastics,” Rosenthal said.

Others similarly voiced hope that the timeline would move more swiftly. Environment America’s Protect Our Oceans Campaign Director Kelsey Lamp praised the announcement but said the 2032 date “is too long to wait for plastic-free parks.” Lamp encouraged the Biden administration to move more swiftly on an initiative the group otherwise deemed “excellent.”

Support for the measure among the public could be broad, if recent numbers are any indicator. Oceana released polling results in January showing 82 percent of respondents nationwide wanted to reduce plastics waste in national parks (Greenwire, Jan. 13).

Walking back a Trump move

The announcement revives a contentious back-and-forth that has played out across multiple administrations amid pressure from advocacy groups and industry members.

The Obama administration banned a number of single-use plastic water bottle sales in the parks, introducing restrictions across 23 sites, including the Grand Canyon. But the Trump administration walked that guidance back in 2017, arguing the plastic options were critical for providing “a safe and world-class visitor experience” and enabled hikers to hydrate (Greenwire, Aug. 17, 2017).

Critics of the Trump-era decision have noted alternatives to the sale of plastic bottles. For example, Zion National Park managed to significantly reduce its plastic waste by installing water bottle refilling stations, in addition to selling reusable bottles.

A report by the National Park Service released shortly after the Obama-era ban reversal also found the ban had been effective at preventing approximately 5,000 pounds of plastic from entering the waste stream each year (Greenwire, Sept. 26, 2017).

Since that time, public outcry over plastics has mounted significantly, with particular attention centered on marine debris and images of ocean pollution. Last summer, a massive coalition of more than 300 green groups, businesses and nonprofits pushed NPS to ban single-use plastics across all 423 national park sites (E&E News PM, July 22, 2021). At the time, they argued Haaland had the power to revive efforts targeting plastics waste within those areas.

Another coalition, including PEER and GreenLatinos, meanwhile submitted a petition to NPS advocating for banning plastic water bottle sales immediately. That action also called for reducing plastic waste in the parks by 75 percent within the next few years.

And the issue has gained increased traction in Congress, with appropriators frustrated by the administration’s inaction. Last October, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) introduced the “Reducing Waste in National Parks Act” (H.R. 5533 and S. 2960), which would direct NPS to create guidelines around reducing single-use plastic waste (E&E Daily, Oct. 12, 2021).

In response to today’s announcement, Merkley cheered the news but urged swifter steps to see the phaseout accelerated before the stated 2032 deadline.

“It’s great news that the Department of the Interior is moving to get single-use plastics out of our public lands and waters,” said the Oregon Democrat in a statement. “This order is a step forward, but there is more we must do to move quickly to address the plastic pollution crisis.”

Plastics wars continue

As the Biden administration makes moves on plastics, public sentiment around the issue more broadly has continued to sour.

According to polling from the World Wildlife Fund released this week, almost 25 percent of Americans believe plastics pollution should be among the top five issues addressed by Congress in the next two years. That number has risen from two years ago, when it was initially 16 percent. Views on plastics recycling are also dim — more than 75 percent of respondents said they believe only a small part or none of plastics waste nationally is recycled.

Those views have become more commonplace, with plastics recycling numbers hovering under 9 percent according to the latest EPA data. Advocacy groups have estimated those numbers might be closer to 5 or 6 percent (Greenwire, May 4).

The plastics industry has not disputed issues with recycling and pollution. In a statement responding to the WWF polling, Joshua Baca, vice president of plastics at the American Chemistry Council, similarly called for action.

“WWF’s public opinion polling on plastic and waste management reinforces the need for Congress, state and local governments, and the plastics value chain to do more to address waste and foster a circular economy,” Baca said.

But ACC’s preferred approach would take a very different route from many environmental groups. While advocates have pushed for bans and tighter regulations, plastics proponents argue that improved infrastructure and scaling up “chemical recycling” practices will solve many of the problems posed by the material. Chemical recycling entails using various technologies to reduce plastics to their chemical form so that they can be reused, often as fuel. Some environmental groups maintain the practice raises many questions around health impacts and sustainability, although EPA has expressed interest in the technologies (Greenwire, Feb. 28).

“Plastics help reduce food waste, enable modern health care, and are critical to renewable energy,” Baca said, adding his group hopes to work with advocates and officials “to pass meaningful legislation to accelerate a circular economy for plastics.”

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