The next time you head to a national park, you once again will be able to buy a bottle of water. But for the last six years or so, that hasn't been the case.
The back story
In 2011, America's national parks were encouraged to end the sale of bottled water in order to reduce pollution and set an example of sustainability. About two dozen parks, including Grand Canyon, Mount Rushmore and Zion, banned the sale of plastic water bottles. Parks that had banned the sales of disposable water bottles encouraged visitors to bring their own water bottles (reusable or not) and installed free public refilling stations.
"Sustainability is a visible effort for the National Park Service," then-director Jon Jarvis wrote in a memo to all the systems' parks in December 2011. "We must be a visible exemplar of sustainability...When considered on a life-cycle basis, the use of disposable plastic water bottles has significant environmental impact compared to the use of local tap water and refillable bottles."
A little girl refills her reusable water at Grand Canyon National Park. (Photo: Grand Canyon National Park/flickr)
When NPS introduced the optional no-bottle-sales policy, it seemed like a good way to get rid of the bottles, which cause litter — not to mention a recycling nightmare. Disposable plastic water bottles are the main source of trash in U.S. national parks, averaging nearly one-third of the parks' solid waste, according to a report by Protecting Employees who Protect Our Environment or PEER. According to the Grand Canyon's website, disposable plastic bottles comprise an estimated 20 percent of Grand Canyon's waste stream and 30 percent of the park's recyclables.
But what seemed like a good idea to environmental groups and park leaders didn't make companies that manufacture water bottles very happy. Known as "Big Water," the roughly 200 manufacturers of bottled water fought back with a big-time lobbying campaign on Capitol Hill.
“This is a prominent, misleading attack on bottled water that has no justification,” Chris Hogan, vice president of communications for the International Bottled Water Association, told The Washington Post.
“Families who don’t own expensive camping equipment and aren’t experienced hikers and climbers will be surprised to find out that they can’t buy their child a bottle of water at one of our national parks,” said U.S. Rep. Keith Rothfus of Pennsylvania, who sided with Big Water. “Temperatures at the Grand Canyon just this week will top 100 degrees. Visitors who may have forgotten or have run out of water could be put at risk of dehydration.”
Where the ban stands now
A recycling bin overflows with water bottles at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Mr.TinDC/flickr)
At the time, the lobbying campaign wasn't successful enough to stop the water bottle ban. But once President Donald Trump was inaugurated in January 2017, the lobbying effort began anew. And this time, under a White House administration more aligned with corporations than the environment, the lobbying paid off.
“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 National Park Service Director Michael T. Reynolds in a press release in August 2017.
This same argument, as The Guardian points out, was "used by the bottled water industry’s main mouthpiece, the International Bottled Water Association, last year. Members of the lobbying organization include representatives of bottled water giants such as Nestlé, which sells brands including Poland Springs, Perrier and San Pellegrino in North America."
If not water, then what?
Of course the restrictions put a dent in water sales, but beyond that, there was a health price to pay: Park visitors who don't bring their own reusable water containers may be forced to buy sugary sodas and other drinks instead of water.
Jarvis acknowledged that possibility when he sent his memo.
"It eliminates the healthiest choice for bottled drinks, leaving sugary drinks as a primary alternative," he wrote.
Nutrition professor and registered dietitian Rachel Johnson, Ph.D., wrote an editorial in The Hill speaking out against the sales ban. She did a study when the University of Vermont, where she is employed, put similar rules in place in 2013. The result was a 33 percent increase in sales of sugary drinks and a 6 percent increase in the number of bottles shipped to campus, she says.
"Our study shows that these sorts of policies, regardless of the motivation behind their adoption, may result in the consumption of more calories and more added sugars, a perpetuation of unhealthy dietary choices, and — ironically — an increase in plastic waste," she wrote. "Our study clearly suggests that the NPS bottled water sales ban has the potential to undermine efforts to encourage healthy food and beverage choices and may be environmentally counterproductive."
Apparently all of these arguments won over the Trump administration, and the ban is no longer in effect.
Editor's note: This story has been updated since it was originally published in July 2015.