Get Single-Use Plastic Out of U.S. National Parks

Sign a petition telling Congress you support banning plastics in parks.

entry to Zion National Park

David Becker / Stringer / Getty Images

A national park is the last place anyone wants to see trash. Not that it's ever a welcome sight, but there's something about these magnificent geographical settings that makes waste appear even more out of place, more jarring and disturbing than anywhere else. It seems like such an affront to nature.

Visitors may have the best of intentions when they travel to national parks, but far too many are leaving behind unwelcome traces—in the form of food wrappers and packaging, beverage bottles, plastic bags, discarded climbing or camping gear, and more. Whether it's through carelessness or lack of awareness, this waste creates a huge burden for park staff to deal with, and poses a threat to wildlife such as bears, that can experience health problems from ingesting human food or become aggressive in pursuit of it.

Estimates for how much waste gets left behind range from 70 to 100 million pounds annually. The former amount would fill 600 dump trucks, while the latter would fill the Statue of Liberty 1,800 times over. Either way, it's an inexcusably large amount of trash.

bear-safe trash can in Grand Teton National Park

imageBROKER / Moritz Wolf / Getty Images

One way to address this problem is to reduce the amount of single-use plastic sold in national parks. Right now, single-use plastic is still available in the form of plastic water bottles, food carryout bags, and food containers made from plastic, including biodegradable and compostable versions, as well as expanded polystyrene. None of these can be easily managed by park staff; recycling facilities are distant, and the recycling process is far from effective, even if waste does arrive at a facility.

A New Act

A smarter approach is to deal with the problem at its root, replacing single-use plastics with more eco-friendly alternatives. This is the basis for a new bill, introduced to Congress in October 2021 by Sen. Jeff Merkley and Rep. Mike Quigly. Known as the "Reducing Waste in National Parks Act" (HR5533), it calls for the establishment of a regionally-implemented "program for reduction of disposable plastic products and, if applicable, elimination of the sale and distribution of disposable plastic products."

There's widespread support for such a measure. Poll results released by Oceana in January 2022 revealed that 82% of American adults would support a single-use plastic ban in national parks and 76% agrees that single-use plastic has no place in national parks. The poll was conducted by nonpartisan polling company Ipsos and shows "broad bipartisan support for the elimination of the sale and distribution of single-use plastic in national parks."

To show its support for this bill, anti-plastic charity Free the Ocean has created a petition that it's asking people to sign. So far, it has about a third of its 30,000-signature goal. The petition states that there is "no need for single-use plastic to be sold and distributed in national parks when sustainable alternatives exist." It urges Sen. Merkley and Rep. Quigly to do all they can to get the bill passed. You can add your name to the petition to help in this fight to protect the nation's most beautiful natural spots. 

And be reassured that this would in no way diminish your experience of the park. Water fountains and refill stations would replace vending machines, and water would be accessible at concessioners' stands. Food could still be purchased, but in new and improved packaging. Perhaps you'd be inclined to pack a picnic lunch instead—a great compromise that saves money and packaging waste and allows you to eat in a more remote setting, apart from other visitors.

More information about the petition here.