Back in 2011, the National Park Service launched a campaign to reduce plastic litter by encouraging national parks to end the sale of bottled water. The move was not a blanket “ban” — but it did lead to 23 national parks, including the Grand Canyon and Zion National Park, restricting bottled water sales. The parks set up water refill stations to encourage tourists to use refillable bottles instead.
This past month, the Trump administration reversed this Obama-era policy.
In a statement issued by National Park Service Director, Michael T. Reynolds explained that “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.”
The National Park Service noted that the so-called bottled water ban policy had had unintended consequences by removing the healthiest beverage option but still selling bottles of sweetened drinks like soda and juice.
Unsurprisingly, the International Bottled Water Association applauded the decision. “The rescinded policy was seriously flawed,” says Jill Culora, the trade group’s vice president of communications. Culora notes that while the policy was established to reduce waste, “visitors were still allowed to buy other less healthy beverages — including carbonated soft drinks, sports drinks, teas, milk, beer and wine — that are packaged in much heavier plastic, glass, cans and cardboard containers.” Culora explained that the industry would work closely with the park service to develop recycling programs that “comprehensively address the waste issues within the national parks.”
From a public health perspective, the move to restore bottled water sales at federal parks could encourage park visitors to consume fewer sugary beverages. This follows larger trends nationwide – from workplaces to schools – to encourage more water consumption.
Each year in the U.S, more than $11 billion of bottled water are sold. And Americans now buy more bottled water than soda, according to a Beverage Digest analysis.
However, you don’t have to drink from a bottle to consume more water. There are drinking fountains, of course. Also, companies like GlobalTap have been installing a new generation of fountains in public spaces designed as filling stations for water bottles rather than gfor direct sipping while leaning over.
The park service has cut the water bottle ban policy to expand hydration options for park visitors. “The change in policy comes after a review of the policy’s aims and impact in close consultation with Department of the Interior leadership,” says a spokesperson for the National Park Service.
But critics see the reversal of the policy as another effort by the new administration to undo Obama-era environmental regulations.
The Sierra Club has argued that the water bottle ban was an effort to increase sustainability and reduce carbon emissions. Athan Manuel, the Sierra Club’s public lands policy director, said that “actions that roll back protections on our National Parks and public lands only move our country backward — putting the importance of local economies, wildlife and communities on the back burner.”
The nonprofit group Corporate Accountability International has also weighed in.
“The [bottled-water] industry has lobbied Congress to block this policy for years,” says Jesse Bragg, spokesperson for Corporate Accountability International, in a statement. The group points out that the bottled water industry has also directly lobbied the Interior Department, which oversees the National Park Service.
CAI notes that the White House recently appointed a deputy secretary at the Department of the Interior who previously worked for a law firm representing one of nation’s biggest bottled water companies.
CAI’s Bragg says this is an “example of the industry pulling the strings behind the scenes to protect its profits.”