Getting plastic out of the Grand Canyon

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Try to buy a single-use plastic water bottle in Grand Canyon National Park this spring, and you might end up high and dry. The park has a plan in the works to ban the sale of disposable plastic water bottles, to curb litter and reduce an enormous amount of plastic leaving the park to go to the landfill.

GRAND CANYON WATER BOTTLE FILLING STATION

Designated water-bottle-filling stations such as this one have been installed in high-traffic areas on both rimsof Grand Canyon National Park to provide free water. The station shown in this photo is along the Canyon RimTrail, next to Verkamp’s Visitor Center, on the south rim of the park.

Park spokeswoman Shannan Marcak said staff members hope to detail the proposal in a letter to the regional director any day now, “with the goal of eliminating the sale of water packaged in disposable plastic bottles.”

Instead, the park’s bookstores and concessionaires will offer reusable, souvenir bottles for purchase – and visitors will be encouraged to tote in their own reusable bottles. The policy could be in place by this summer.

Messy business

Marcak said 30 percent of the park’s waste stream comprises disposable plastic water bottles. Despite an ambitious recycling program, visitors don’t always comply; plenty of bottles end up at the dump. And then there are the ones that don’t even make it to the trash. Besides littering the rim trails where you might expect them, cast-off disposable water bottles — along with rings, caps and labels — have been blowing into the inner canyon as well.

“That’s where people have to put on ropes and use technical skills to get them,” Marcak said. “Recycling wasn’t taking care of our litter problem.”

Even if recycling was the solution, it carries environmental costs of its own, she said: “There are lots of shipping costs in all parts of the process with plastic bottles.”

Discussions about avoiding the whole plastic mess took a serious cast within the past year, Marcak said. Initially, park staff were proposing to eliminate the sale of all plastic water bottles of less than one gallon. They were fast-tracking the new rule for release around the first of this year, until a directive from Washington, in December, temporarily put the brakes on.

National drama

When the National Park Service ordered Grand Canyon Superintendent Steve Martin to back off his ban, a political uproar ensued. The New York Times ran a story in November alleging that pressure from Coca- Cola, a significant sponsor of parks, had pressured NPS higher-ups to block the ban at Grand Canyon.

Stiv Wilson, a journalist-turned-pollutionactivist, in turn created a petition at change. org, which had collected 100,000 signatures by the year’s end. The goal: Get the Grand Canyon plastic-water-bottle ban back on track.

Wilson promoted the idea that the Park Service “nixed its long-planned ban on plastic water bottles in the Grand Canyon due to a last-minute lobbying effort by Coca-Cola, a major national park donor actively opposed to bottled water bans.”

And weeks later, when the Park Service issued a national policy on plastic water bottles that provided a pathway for the Grand Canyon’s plan, change.org activists touted it as a win.

“Mobilizing 100,000 people to take action is no small feat,” wrote Corinne Ball, organizing director, in a press release. “Stiv has demonstrated, through using Change.org’s unique platform, that anyone, anywhere can act on issues that are important to them and create meaningful change.”

But for David Barna, chief spokesman for the National Park Service, that story line is a bit of an eye-roller. He said the Park Service had been working for nine months on a Green Parks Plan, including far-reaching initiatives in recycling, rainwater-recapturing, energy-efficient lighting and – yes – new limits on disposable plastic water bottles.

Coca-Cola did tip NPS off to the Grand Canyon’s emerging ban, he said. But Washington officials delayed it to maintain a cohesive national effort – not to cave to corporate pressure.

Instead of an outright ban, the Park Service has now announced a “disposable plastic water bottle recycling and reduction policy, with an option to eliminate sales on a park-by-park basis following an extensive review and with prior approval of the regional director.” So Grand Canyon resumed its planning, and is conducting its review now.

The petition-peddling Wilson complains that the new NPS policy leaves the door open for continued plastic pollution: “If the barriers to implementation of bottle bans are too cost-prohibitive or onerous for the superintendents to act, then we’ve only witnessed a bait and switch,” he wrote, adding that “the public expects the NPS to go the whole way and save our national parks from plastic pollution.”

Ready to roll

The Grand Canyon isn’t starting from scratch on its water-bottle policy. The park had 10 water-bottle filling stations up and running by last July, at a cost of about $290,000.

“Like the existing water fountains and sinks in buildings and facilities throughout the park,” touts the park’s web site, “the new filling stations provide free, Grand Canyon spring water from the park’s approved water supply, located at Roaring Springs.”

Some of the park concessionaires have put in additional stations on their own, and some of the hotels have been adapting their water fountains with spigots to accommodate reusable bottles.

They’re catching on — one of Xanterra’s filling stations, at Maswick Lodge, is equipped with a counter. Last time Marcak checked, 17,000 people had used it.

The Grand Canyon’s web page points out that limiting plastic water bottles is part of its overall designation as a Climate Friendly Park, whereby it’s made a commitment to decrease its greenhouse-gas emissions 30 percent by the year 2020.

“When you refill a reusable water bottle, you decrease the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the production, filling, packaging and transport of disposable water bottles,” goes a public education message on the park website.

Via many of its outreach channels, the park has been getting the word out about its intention to restrict plastic-water-bottle sales within the park.

“We’ve been trying to get the word out that people can bring their own bottles,” Marcak said. “In many ways, for the last year we’ve been implementing a voluntary program.”

In fact, all of the bookstores have already stopped selling bottled water, with no ill effects.

“This has the capacity to work very well,” she said.

Success at Zion

While Grand Canyon is at the forefront of trying to curb water-bottle waste, it’s not alone. Zion National Park got its own ban in ahead of the national policy, helped by the fact that its contract with concessionaire Xanterra was up for renewal. Xanterra was willing to write a new concession bid including starting the sale of reusable, souvenir bottles to tourists – and ending the sale of single-use ones.

Park Superintendent Jock Whitworth said he got the idea a few years ago to talk to concessionaires and the Zion Natural History Association, which runs a lot of the park’s bookstores, about phasing out the sale of disposable water bottles.

They readily agreed, and program has been a huge success, he said: “Within a short period of time, they were making more money selling water bottles than they were selling bottled water.”

He says one remaining challenge is that some of the park’s 2.7 million visitors are stocking up on cases of water before entering the park, so those bottles are still entering the waste stream. Still, “the waste stream has gone down,” he said. “In the first year it didn’t appear to have gone down, but we have seen a steady decrease in plastic bottles.”

No plans at Mesa Verde

Closer to home at Mesa Verde National Park, spokesperson Betty Lieurance said park staff have thought of enacting a plastic- water-bottle ban, but no plans are in the works yet.

“We are in the process of converting our water fountains into water-fill stations, but we do not have a plan in place for the removal of plastic water bottles entirely,” she said.

Lieurance added that plastic waste doesn’t seem to be a pressing issue at Mesa Verde, and staff members are hesitant to rush toward banning plastic bottles when heat and dehydration pose risks for summer visitors.

“It’s a safety issue too,” she said.

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From February 2012.