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UPDATE: National Park Service Ends Ban On Disposable Water Bottles


Disposable water bottle sales likely will return to many national parks following the announcement Wednesday that the National Park Service ban on the bottles was rescinded/Kurt Repanshek file photo

Editor'snote: This updates to include comment from the International Bottled Water Association, clarifies  that the ban was against the sale of disposable bottles.

The Trump administration announced Wednesday an end to a controversial ban on the sale of disposable water bottles in the National Park System, a move applauded by the bottled water industry but no doubt disappointing to reusable bottle makers and organizations trying to reduce plastic waste.

In a release not immediately distributed directly to media outlets but quietly posted on its press release website, the National Park Service said its decision to overturn the ban was part of its "commitment to providing a safe and world-class visitor experience." 

The 2011 policy, which encouraged national parks to eliminate the sale of disposable water bottles, has been rescinded to expand hydration options for recreationalists, hikers, and other visitors to national parks. The ban removed the healthiest beverage choice at a variety of parks while still allowing sales of bottled sweetened drinks. The change in policy comes after a review of the policy’s aims and impact in close consultation with Department of the Interior leadership.

“While we will continue to encourage the use of free water bottle filling stations as appropriate, ultimately it should be up to our visitors to decide how best to keep themselves and their families hydrated during a visit to a national park, particularly during hot summer visitation periods,” said acting Park Service Director Michael T. Reynolds.

The battle over bottled water dates to December 2011, when then-National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis gave park superintendents the option to impose a ban in a move to reduce litter in the parks and waste in landfills. Since then, nearly two dozen parks have banned their sale, and installed water stations for visitors to refill their reusable bottles and hydration packs.

But the move was never popular with the bottled water industry, and their lobbyists found allies in Congress to push back against the Park Service ban. Indeed, even before former Park Service Director Jarvis agreed to a ban, the Park Service's commitment to a green environment was partially derailed when Coca Cola in November 2011 raised concerns over plans to ban disposable water bottles at Grand Canyon National Park with the National Park Foundation and Director Jarvis, who initially blocked the ban.

Despite the ban's removal, water-filling stations likely will remain in national parks/Kurt Repanshek file photo

In coming around to agree to a ban of disposable plastic water bottles, then-Director Jarvis cited the Park Service's Green Parks Plan, which had a goal of reducing waste in the parks, in part by offering water bottle refilling stations in at least 75 percent of park visitor centers by 2016, the year the agency marks its centennial. (Note: The NPS failed to reach that goal.)

Since that 2011 directive went out, there have been occasional moves to force the Park Service to lift the ban.

Early in 2013 the bottled water industry pushed back against the ban, saying it would encourage visitors to turn to unhealthy alternatives to quench their thirsts. According to the International Bottled Water Association, research shows that in the absence of bottled water products, "63 percent of people will choose soda or another sugared drink – not tap water."

In 2015, the House of Representatives approved an amendment to overturn the ban, but then the bill it was attached to, the House Interior Appropriations bill, was pulled back due to a fight over whether Confederate flags could be displayed at national cemeteries. The Bottled Water Association at the time said the House's move to overturn the ban "is a vote for public health and safety."

Then last year the funding bill for the Interior Department drafted by the House contained language that would have blocked the Park Service from using its budget to enforce the bottle ban.

Shortly after the Park Service announced the death of the ban the International Bottled Water Association released comments approving the move.

“The International Bottled Water Association applauds this action, which recognizes the importance of making safe, healthy, convenient bottled water available to the millions of people from around the world who want to stay well-hydrated while visiting national parks,” said IBWA Vice President of Communications Jill Culora. “Consumption of water in all forms – tap, filtered, and bottled – should always be encouraged.”

Currently only 23 of the 417 National Park Service sites have implemented the policy, the Park Service said Wednesday. The revocation of the memorandum, which was put in place on December 14, 2011, is effective immediately. Parks will continue to promote the recycling of disposable plastic water bottles and many parks have already worked with partners to provide free potable water in bottle filling stations located at visitor centers and near trailheads, the agency said.

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Three and a half years . . . . just three and a half years . . . . 

I've always thought buying bottled water foolish but then I am lucky enough to live where the water is clean and good. Besides, disposable water bottles are very reusable although I understand many do not do that. I've always been a fan of education over creating more laws and love the water fountains that can accommodate a 32 oz bottle.

Once again, reason prevails. 

The entire idea of placing water, which is readily available from taps in western nations, into disposable bottles, creating more waste, is not reasonable.

Well gnaztee, there are hundreds of millions of people buying billions of bottles that disagree with you.  

I swear. If someone called the sky blue, you would comment to point out that it's not red.  Are you ever wrong? The point is that disposable bottles are an unnecessary addition to our landfills, waste of natural resources and a non-biodegradable source of trash on land and sea and the common sense of forking out money for something you can draw from any water tap escapes me. The intent was to make the parks a better place and less of a foot print on the very natural world they are trying to protect. But anytime you have money, politics and the fragile human ego, then it seems the natural world always takes a backseat. The USA is destined to become the next Mayan culture.  Just give it time. 

Just because hundreds of millions of our fellow citizens are buying bottled water doesn't make it reasonable or good for the environment, or for their pocketbooks.  It's just more convenient for a lot of lazy people.  Bottled water makes sense where tap quality is bad, but where I live the tap water is superior to what they put in the disposable containers.  Bottled water sells like hotcakes around here, and our streets are littered with zillions of discarded plastic bottles.   If people made better choices, we'd need fewer laws and regulations.

I understand the sentiment behind trying to reduce plastic waste, but in the end I don't know if it's such a great idea as a practical matter.  The person who would have otherwise bought a water bottle on site will just end up buying a Coke even if it's just to get a bottle to refill.  Or perhaps just go without water if unprepared (and risk the dangers of dehydration).  And the rule didn't prevent anyone from bringing bottled water bought elsewhere.  And I can buy a case of 24 500 ml bottles at Target for about what 2 cost at a typical NPS concessionaire.

And to make it clear, I rarely buy bottled water.  When I do it's typically for when I go on longer trips and don't know where I might find a place to refill a bottle.  When I've bought them I might stash them in my car's trunk for an emergency.  I'd love it if more people were encouraged to not buy as much bottled water and filling stations that can easily fill a bottle are a good start.  I remember how awkward it was to fill my 3L hydration bladder using a water fountain at Grand Canyon NP.

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