New federal legislation proposed to curb plastic pollution in national parks

A new federal bill proposed last week by U.S. Representative Mike Quigley (D-IL), the Reducing Waste in National Parks Act, aims to curb plastic waste and pollution in the U.S. National Park system.

If passed, the legislation would reduce the use of disposable plastic products—including single-use beverage bottles, plastic bags, and plastic foodware—in many national park facilities across the country. Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) introduced a companion bill in the Senate.

The United States is one of the largest plastic waste producers in the world. In 2018 alone, the country generated more than 35 million tons of plastic. While most of the plastic was sent to landfills, a significant amount ends up polluting our water and land—including our national parks.

“National parks are bipartisan—everybody loves the national parks,” Quigley told EHN. As people continue to appreciate the beauty of national parks, he said, he hopes the bill educates and encourages them to reduce their plastic waste and protect the environment.

Merkley told EHN, “Plastic pollution threatens our ability to live in healthy communities and to enjoy the beauty and majesty of our national parks, today and in the future.”

Quigley said he hopes his bill will pass in the House this fall and advance to the Senate floor, adding, “we’re going to get very creative on how we move this thing forward.”

Reducing plastic sales and use

plastic act congress

The bill isn’t an outright ban on single-use plastic products. Instead, it directs the National Park Service to draft plans for reducing the sale and use of plastic products at the parks. To that end, the bill “is not one size fits all,” Quigley said, as each regional park director could tailor the waste-reduction effort for their region.

Scaling down plastic consumption and waste is not a new initiative for the National Park Service. In 2011, the Obama administration issued guidance that encouraged national parks across the country to stop selling plastic water bottles. Under the voluntary plastic ban, 23 out of 417 national parks—including Grand Canyon National Park and Zion National Park—restricted bottled water sales. As a result, Zion National Park in Utah saved 60,000 water bottles, or 5,000 pounds of plastic waste, by installing water stations and selling reusable water bottles, according to a statement from Quigley’s office following the announcement of the new bill.

The Trump administration overturned the Obama-era policy in 2017. The reversal came just weeks after the Senate confirmation of David Bernhardt, who was appointed the deputy secretary for the Department of Interior, the governing agency for the National Parks. A former lobbyist, Bernhardt had worked with Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, the law firm that has represented Deer Park’s distributor Nestlé Waters.

A few months before the policy was overturned, the National Park Service published a report stating that the Obama administration’s guidance at participating national parks helped save 1.3–2.01 million disposable water bottles every year, reducing 73,000–111,000 pounds of plastic waste annually.

 Politics of plastic 

Quigley hopes by solidifying the plastic reduction rules into law, the Reducing Waste in National Parks Act will have a better chance of survival regardless of which party holds the White House.

“Rather than rely on the whims of whichever president happens to be in office,” Quigley said, “[the bill] would codify this guidance and ensure that future administrations can’t reverse it.” Before this bill, Quigley tried to introduce similar versions of the act in 2017 and 2019, but both died in Congress.

The National Park Service declined to comment. “NPS does not comment on proposed legislation until we have testified on the legislation (if asked to do so),” the agency’s spokesperson told EHN. Meanwhile, environmental advocacy groups have so far applauded this bill.

“On average, the park service manages nearly 70 million pounds of waste annually, including plastics that pollute lands and waterways and harm our fragile ocean ecosystems,” John Garder of the National Parks Conservation Association, an environmental group for national parks throughout the country, told EHN. “The National Park Service and all of us must continue to examine ways to reduce waste, and we applaud the effort of Sen. Merkley and Rep. Quigley to address this important issue.”

Banner photo: Yellowstone National Park visitors wait for Old Faithful. (Credit: Nick Amoscato/flickr)