I’ve always found the packaged sale of water a bit of an oxymoron. On one hand, it’s undeniably healthy. Water, after all, is a fundamental part of our daily diet. But is it healthy for the environment? While the plastic is recyclable, the most ecologically responsible step, of course, is to consume nature’s most basic beverage in a reusable container. This observation leads to an interesting showdown that is underway between the water bottle industry and the operators of some of America’s most majestic natural spots. The fighting has spilled over into the laps of lawmakers in Washington, D.C., who have been asked to intervene. Top officials at the U.S. National Park Service (NPS), a federal agency, recently attempted to implement a strategy aimed at curtailing the number of plastic water bottles filling recycling bins and (gasp!) regular trash cans. A plan had been put into motion to no longer sell bottled water on many of the premises of the parks. The NPS – which has oversight of 408 parks, monuments and historic sites across the U.S. – was not planning to ban the consumption of bottled water by the millions of visitors who take in such sites as the Grand Canyon each year. If a visitor brought in his or her own bottled water beverage, everything was still A-OK. According to the Center for Effective Government, the NPS has already piloted its ban at 20 parks within the agency’s auspices. One of the larger, better known sites is Zion National Park in Utah. The CEG post, authored by President and CEO Katherine McFate, touches on another important point: litter. While many park visitors are responsible and place their emptied, unwanted plastic containers in the appropriate receptacles, an insurmountable number of those bottles also find their way right into the heart of some of nature’s greatest wonders. They roll down streams, and they sit idle in canyons. This unfortunate occurrence not only is unsightly, it can be harmful to animals over time. The impetus for the proposed change, according to John Jarvis, who helms the NPS, is two-fold. From a philosophical perspective, Jarvis in a widely circulated memo to his staffers said he wanted to encourage eco-friendly practices. On the practical side, Jarvis said he was attempting to cut down on waste and recycling removal fees, which can be exorbitant in some of the agency’s most remote parks. “We must be a visible exemplar of sustainability,” Jarvis wrote in his memo. “When considered on a life-cycle basis, the use of disposable plastic water bottles has a significant environmental impact, compared to the use of local tap water and refillable bottles.” The response from the bottled water industry to Jarvis’ plans was in stark contrast to the feelings one might experience while bathing in the serenity of Yellowstone, another natural wonder overseen by the NPS. The International Bottled Water Association (IBWA) – yes, the industry is large enough to have its own lobbying and trade group – issued a sharp response to NPS’ plan. The association represents somewhere in the ballpark of 200 bottling companies, including such heavy-hitters as Evian and Glacier Springs. “This is a prominent misleading attack on bottled water that has no justification,” Chris Hogan, vice president of communications for the IBWA, is quoted as saying in the Washington Post. While exact figures do not appear to be readily available, it’s probably safe to say the sale of bottled water is a big business at NPS’ many natural wonders, which draw in busloads of tourists to highly prominent spots. After all, it’s instinctive to want to quench a thirst when you’re hiking in blazing temperatures soaring close to 100 degrees Fahrenheit. As the Washington Post story points out, the water bottle industry as a whole raked in $13 billion in sales in 2014. Surely, if NPS’ plan moves forward and impacts all sites, it could cut into the industry’s bottom line. Purchasing bottled water once was thought of as more of a luxury item, but sales have soared over the past few decades as more cost-effective options and brands have hit the marketplace. The industry’s most prominent advocate is not going down without a fight as final, definitive action waits in the wings. The IBWA has lobbed a number of criticisms toward Jarvis and the NPS, including one charge stating the federal agency is actually promoting an unhealthy lifestyle. There is no provision for banning the sale of canned and bottled soft drinks within NPS’ grounds, so visitors could be tempted to quench their thirst with a sugary option – one, of course, that actually dehydrates you even more. In fairness to the NPS, however, the agency has established a novel system that appears to have been drowned out in the conversation. Assuming the plastic bottle ban does move forward, water stations have been planned at strategic spots at many of NPS’ parks. The 20 sites in the pilot effort have already moved to this set-up. Assuming a park visitor brings his or her own container, he or she can refill it for free by stopping by one of the stations. But the key word in this scenario is assuming. As pointed out by the Washington Post, a number of Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill have argued NPS’ planned ban of selling bottled water could actually harm people. “Temperatures at the Grand Canyon … (can) top 100 degrees,” U.S. Rep. Keith Rothfus, R-Pennsylvania, stated during one hearing about a bill that would force the NPS to continue selling bottled water or face penalties. “Visitors who may have forgotten or run out of water could be put at risk of dehydration.” As an updated story from the Washington Post points out, the showdown has reached new, monsoon-like proportions as the Republican-led Congress attempts to reverse NPS’ plans. A new proposal entails a threat to withhold funding for those water stations that have been touted as a substitute for selling bottled water. For its part, the NPS is not backing down, and several top officials have stated they will go it alone if Congress does hold true to its promise to halt funding.
The Plastic Water Bottle Industry is None Too Happy
The U.S. National Park Service has proposed halting the sale of bottled water.