The Trash Problem in National Parks

Tips to Reduce Your Footprint on Protected Lands

View of Merced River and El Capitan, Yosemite National Park
Merced River and El Capitan, Yosemite National Park.

tiffanynguyen / Getty Images

U.S. national parks summon hundreds of thousands of annual visitors — many of them seeking smogless air, unadulterated nature, and an auditory respite from the usual urban clamor. But behind the veil of aesthetic perfection, these treasured patches of protected land are grappling with a growing trash problem that could prove threatening to already-vulnerable plant and animal populations. 

Andrea Walton, a spokesperson for the National Park Service, says the agency manages more than 100 million pounds of waste from park operations and visitors annually. That's enough to fill the Statue of Liberty 1,800 times. Of that waste, 40.7% is organic (i.e., food), 21.6% paper and cardboard, 17% plastics, 6.6% glass, and 14% other reusable or recyclable items such as food packaging, propane cylinders, and camping gear, according to the National Parks Conservation Association.

The issue has prompted the National Park Foundation, the official charity of the NPS, to team up with private companies such as Subaru and Tupperware Brands to divert a reported 10 million plastic bottles from landfills per year. The NPF's Resilience and Sustainability program has already diverted nearly half of Denali, Grand Teton, and Yosemite's waste by improving recycling and composting infrastructure. Its waste reduction strategy includes more recycling, more composting, and dozens of water refill stations to help the ecosystems these parks aim to protect thrive amid surging visitation.

The Trash Problem in National Parks by the Numbers

  • More than 300 million people visit U.S. national parks every year. 
  • Annual visitation has more than doubled since 1995 and more than tripled since 1970.
  • Some 85% of the 423 national parks have levels of air pollution that are considered hazardous to human and animal health.
  • More than a third of park visitors drink from disposable water bottles, although 79% say they would support the removal of single-use water bottles if it would significantly help reduce waste.
  • Two-thirds of visitors use the park recycling facilities. 
  • Two in five take their trash with them when they leave.

Trash in National Parks

Maintenance worker picks up trash in Zion National Park
Zion National Park.

David Becker / Getty Images

The amount of trash generated by national parks is equal to that generated by at least 56,000 people, based on the Environmental Protection Agency's estimate that the average American produces about 1,790 pounds of waste per year. To further put it into perspective, the amount of trash generated daily in national parks is 28% greater than that generated daily at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.

The influx of national park visitors has created more mess than some parks can handle — those in Alaska, for instance, face a unique set of logistical challenges with recycling and composting due to their remoteness. And being meccas of plant and animal life makes these natural reserves especially vulnerable to the effects of pollution. Of the more than 1,600 at-risk and endangered plant and animal species that exist in the U.S., Hawaii's Haleakalā National Park is in itself home to more than 100, for example.

The buildup of trash can pose a substantial risk to wildlife like bears, especially, which not only potentially suffer health problems from consuming human food but can also become aggressive once fed. Bears exhibiting food-driven aggression are often killed to protect visitors, according to Rocky Mountain National Park, one of the many parks that must use special locking garbage bins that bears and other animals can't open. However, the bins are ineffective when overflowing — as was the case during the 2019 government shutdown and the following year's coronavirus pandemic.

Human waste and toilet paper pose an additional threat. When hikers and campers relieve themselves in the wilderness, they sometimes leave the toilet paper to decompose naturally, a process that can take up to three years. Human feces alone can, if left too close to groundwater, spread parasites to other humans and wildlife. But that kind of waste isn't even included in the general trash statistics.

Most detrimental are perhaps the ways 100 million pounds of garbage annually helps accelerate the climate crisis. Nearly half of national parks' total waste — 40 million pounds — is discarded food. When sent to landfills, food emits methane, a greenhouse gas up to 34 times more damaging than carbon dioxide. Food waste is responsible for 6% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and the U.S. is one of the worst offenders, wasting up to 40% of the entire national food supply.

"Composting programs in parks can be effective in reducing waste and greenhouse gas emissions," Walton says. "Well-designed composting programs can also mitigate the risk of introducing invasive plant species, emitting offensive odors, or becoming a wildlife attractant."

The second-largest portion of national parks waste is plastic, mostly from the high volume of bottled water bought and consumed in the parks daily. In 2011, the NPS rolled out a policy discouraging the sale of bottled water. As a result, 23 parks implemented restrictions, ultimately diverting a reported 2 million water bottles from landfills annually, but six years later, the Trump administration reversed the policy on the basis of visitors not having access to healthy beverage choices.

Yosemite National Park

Wildlife-proof garbage bin in Yosemite National Park
Wildlife-proof garbage bin in Yosemite National Park.

M. Kaercher / Getty Images

Visited by about 4.5 million people per year, Yosemite National Park alone generates up to 5% of all national park waste, although the NPS says about 60% of it gets recycled. This park is located in California black bear country, so the wildlife that call it home are especially vulnerable to food waste left out of garbage bins. 

In addition to the usual discarded granola bars and plastic bottles, Yosemite's increasing popularity as a rock climbing destination has led to an accumulation of abandoned gear at the top of El Capitan, its most famous granite peak, despite the park's pack-it-out rule. More than 3,000 volunteers descend on the park every year for a cleanup event called Yosemite Facelift, a decades-long tradition. Over the course of about a week, volunteers pick up more than 14,000 pounds of garbage and debris from the park's most-visited areas and roadways. According to the NPS, more than half of it is small or micro trash.

The park has been working to reduce its waste through recycling (since 1975), composting (since at least 2009), and decades of education. In 2015, as a result of improved recycling infrastructure and "renewed efforts at visitor education," the park recorded its lowest number of bear incidents: 76. The following year, it announced the Zero Landfill Initiative with Subaru of America, the National Parks Conservation Association, and the Yosemite Conservancy. The initiative set out to divert 80% of its waste from the landfill by the end of 2017. Today, it diverts about 60%.

How to Reduce Your Footprint

Hiker taking a break with reusable water bottle

dowell / Getty Images

In 2021, the NPF announced a partnership with Tupperware Brands Charitable Foundation to install 65-plus water refill stations at Florida's Castillo de San Marcos National Monument, Fairbanks Alaska Public Lands Information Center, Nevada's Great Basin National Park, Virginia's Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts, Alaska's Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve, and the National Mall and Memorial Parks of Washington, D.C., with hopes of reducing the need for single-use water bottles. 

The partnership also includes improving recycling infrastructure at Great Basin National Park and Yellowstone National Park and composting initiatives at Alaska's Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park and Arizona's Grand Canyon National Park. The recycling initiative is expected to divert nearly 10 million plastic bottles from landfills — a figure based on visitation statistics and the impact of a single refill station, says Ashley McEvoy, the NPF's senior program manager for resilience and sustainability.

On an individual level, McEvoy says we can reduce our impact on national parks by following Leave No Trace principles, "like respecting public lands and waters, as well as Native and local communities, and taking all our garbage with us." She suggests bringing a reusable water bottle and snack containers to refill in the park. "Also, it's important to pay attention to the signs in parks that help us understand what goes in the recycling versus composting versus trash bins," she says. 

Instead of taking a paper map from the park ranger at the entrance, download the park's app or digital park maps before you go. Pack light, share toiletries with friends, be thoughtful with your purchases, ride public shuttles instead of a personal vehicle, and never leave trash in campground fire pits. If you can, take your trash and recyclables back home with you — the remoteness of most parks makes it difficult to transport large amounts to the nearest waste management facilities.

"We are all in this together," McEvoy says. "Every little bit counts toward reducing waste and helping to preserve parks for all people." 

View Article Sources
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  6. "Final Environmental Impact Report for the Music Festivals Plan." City of Indio. March 2016.

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  8. "Garbage Kills Bears." National Park Service.

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  14. "Climbing Regulations." National Park Service.

  15. "16th Annual Facelift to be Held in Yosemite National Park." National Park Service.