Get Out There

Plastic Makes up 81 Percent of Trash in National Parks

In June, we wrote a blog about the news that the national parks are phasing out all single-use plastic by 2032. That date can’t come soon enough for the parks. They are struggling with plastic waste.

A new analysis looked at trash in the parks to see what people throw away. It focused on garbage picked up by volunteers in 44 spots within the parks between July and September. Plastic made up 81 percent of the trash. Packaging from food and drinks makes up 45 percent of the trash.  

When introducing the plan to phase out plastic in the parks, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said, “As the steward of the nation’s public lands, including national parks and national wildlife refuges, and as the agency responsible for the conservation and management of fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats, we are uniquely positioned to do better for our Earth.”

Environmentalists say the plan “lacks urgency” and isn’t enough. It should be executed faster to protect the plants and animals that live in the parks and preserve the land’s beauty. In five days, 1,300 volunteers collected 14,780 pounds of trash in Yosemite — the parks are choked with garbage. The faster we can move to protect them, the better it will be for nature and the visitors who want to enjoy the gorgeous sights.

Citizen science has spoken: Plastic pollution is a problem in our national parks, and single-use plastic tops the charts of waste collected,” said Christy Leavitt, campaign director for Oceana. “Our parks and wildlife can’t wait 10 years to reverse this pollution crisis.”

The 10 most common types of trash were cigarette butts, wrappers, plastic bottles, bottle caps, textiles like clothing and shoes, metal bottles and cans, cups, straws, lids and wipes. The analysis offered suggestions for future steps for both the parks and visitors. The parks need to give people easier access to water stations so they can refill bottles easily and not carry multiple disposable water bottles. Having bottle deposits would encourage people to recycle. They should use real dishes and utensils at restaurants and stands in the parks. And they should get rid of bioplastics that require treatment to degrade. Visitors should take care of their cigarette butts. Cigarettes are not biodegradable and can cause fires. Carrying out your trash makes a large difference to the cleanliness of the parks. The less single-use plastic brought into the parks, the better. And do not leave cloth or wipes in the park assuming they will break down — most contain at least some plastic.  

Halting the sale of plastic inside the park is only one step toward reducing waste. Visitors carry in things they throw away. We aren’t trying to shame anyone or make anyone feel guilty about what they pack for hiking or camping. But carrying your trash out with you or using a reusable bottle can help the parks tremendously. If we want to share these beautiful lands with future generations, it is crucial to take care of them. It’s also essential to remember that the plastic that goes into the streams and rivers in the parks eventually makes it into the water table and our taps. For the health of the parks and our communities, it’s time we pay more attention to plastic in the parks.

Banner image: Brian Yurasits via Unsplash

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