The $13 Billion Bottled Water Industry vs. the National Park Service...and American Hikers, Campers, Hunters, and Nature-Lovers

Yellowstone National Park was established in 1872 “for the benefit and enjoyment” of the American people. It was the first of 59 national parks dedicated to the conservation of 'wild nature' for posterity, and it is a symbol of national pride. Almost 14 million people a year visit our national parks to camp, hike, and enjoy nature.

Concerned about garbage cans overflowing with plastic bottles and the ever-growing costs of recycling them, four years ago, the Director of the National Park Service, Jonathan Jarvis, told park managers to replace the sale of disposable plastic water bottles with reusable bottles and water filling stations (or hydration centers) if possible. Jarvis believes this shift is necessary to preserve the parks and the public’s experience of nature at its most pristine.

About 20 parks have already banned sales of plastic water bottles at park concessions with great effects. For example, Zion National Park in Utah has eliminated 60,000 plastic water bottles a year from its grounds, reducing waste costs and clearing its rivers and streams of debris. This should be a “no-brainer” triple win, making the parks more sustainable, saving public funds for clean up, and ensuring the beauty of our nation’s natural resources.

But bottled water industry lobbyists are fuming.

Americans love their national parks.

A few years ago, I was involved in a project that engaged ordinary people in a discussion about what they loved about the states in which they lived. I was surprised at how often they volunteered physical endowments and recreational opportunities in their home states. A survey of voters in 2012 confirmed this: more than 80 percent of voters had visited a national park at some point in their lives, and nearly nine in 10 said they hoped to in the future. They saw national parks as embodying the American experience, and nine out of ten felt that preserving the parks for future generations was an appropriate role for the federal government. National parks are a top tourist draw, supporting 258,000 jobs and $31 billion in consumer spending each year.

Lobbyists for the bottled water industry gear up.

Given the importance the public attaches to preserving our natural resources and the success of this policy change, we were surprised to see the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA), the trade association of the bottled water industry, launch an aggressive lobbying campaign against Jarvis’ new rule last year. After all, visitors are still allowed to bring their own bottled water into the park; they just can’t buy disposable bottles on site.

Initially, the IBWA claimed that the Park Service ban on bottled water “forced” visitors toward unhealthy “sugary alternatives,” thereby undermining the NPS’s mission of promoting healthy lifestyles. Given that many of its members market sugary soft drinks, the hypocrisy of this approach was apparent to all.

More recently, industry lobbyists succeeded in getting an industry-friendly amendment (or policy rider) attached to a government funding bill pending in the House. Introduced by Republican Rep. Keith Rothfus of Pennsylvania, a state that employs 6,800 people at bottled water companies, the amendment would prevent the Park Service from using any of its funds to implement a ban on bottled water sales.

The National Park Service shakes off threats to block funding.

The Park Service is unrepentant. It costs between $2,000 to $15,000 per park to set up refilling stations, depending on how much pipe needs to be laid, and how close the stations are to natural water sources. Park Service officials believe that nonprofit “friends of the parks” groups will step and pay for these costs.

They are also receiving support for the new refilling installations from sources that may surprise the IBWA – the private companies that manage the concessions at the national parks. A spokesman for Aramark, the company that has the concession contracts in Yosemite, Glacier Bay, and four other parks, told The Washington Post, “We are moving away from plastic bottled water and introducing alternatives, such as re-sealable aluminum bottles, cans, and cartons, and water fountains, water walls and filling stations.”

The public, the Park Service, and some private companies understand the imperative to clean up our environment and reduce our footprint on the earth. Government can be a critical driver toward greater sustainability.

When will the trade association lobbyists that try to block such deals – and the members of Congress people who listen to them – understand they are on the wrong side of reason and history?

This post also appeared on The Huffington Post.

Image in teaser courtesy of Flickr user Carl Berger, used under a Creative Commons license.

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well written
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