U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley—the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee that funds the U.S. Department of the Interior and the National Park Service—is leading an effort today to push the Biden administration to take steps to curb plastic pollution at America’s national parks.
The move comes about a month after more than 300 environmental and environmental justice organizations and businesses wrote to Haaland to call for the elimination of single-use plastics in the nation’s 423 national parks.
“Millions of people flock to our national parks every year to enjoy incredible experiences of nature, history, and culture. But plastic pollution has been creeping into these special places at alarming rates — a 2020 study found that even the rain that falls in our national parks contains plastic,” said Christy Leavitt, Oceana’s plastics campaign director. “Unnecessary single-use plastics have no place in our country’s most treasured spaces, and Secretary Haaland has the power to ignite that change.”
“Nearly 11 million metric tons of plastic waste enter the ocean every year—from land-based sources alone,” the senators wrote in their letter to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland. “Without any action, this flow is expected to triple to nearly 29 million metric tons by 2040.”
“Single-use plastics, such as disposable water bottles, account for at least 40% of the plastic produced every year. Public lands are not only threatened directly from plastic litter, recent studies have found that national parks and wilderness areas are accumulating microplastics from the rain and wind, causing unknown impacts on critically important ecosystems,” the lawmakers said.
“As the agency tasked with promoting public stewardship through education and engagement, we believe the NPS can play a critical role in educating the public about the threat of plastic pollution and can lead by example in reducing plastic pollution to protect the health of our public lands for future generations of the American public. We thank you for your continued leadership and look forward to working with you on this critical issue,” the lawmakers said.
“New Jersey’s nine national parks — the Appalachian Trail, Delaware Water Gap, Ellis Island, Gateway, Great Egg Harbor River, Lower Delaware, Morristown, New Jersey Pinelands, Paterson Great Falls, Thomas Edison, and Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route — stand as role models for protecting our lands and providing amazing recreational activities for visitors from around the globe,” said Lisa McCormick, a New Jersey environmental activist. “With scientists estimating that 33 billion pounds of plastic wash into the ocean every year, an amount that equates to about two garbage trucks’ worth of plastic entering the ocean every minute, it is crucial that we do everything we can to stop poisoning our planet.”
In their letter, the senators requested that the National Park Service reinstate a policy—which was instituted in 2011 but rolled back during the Trump administration—to allow parks to voluntarily establish disposable plastic water bottle sale elimination programs.
The policy had previously diverted between 1.3 and 2 million disposable water bottles, a savings of up to 111,743 pounds of plastic and 141 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions.
The senators also suggested a requirement that all park units establish a program to eliminate the sale of disposable plastic water bottles, as well as new recycling requirements, where feasible, and plastic reduction strategies in concession contracts.
A ban would also advance the Biden administration’s goals for addressing environmental justice and the climate crisis. Plastic production facilities, incinerators, and landfills are often located in low income communities and communities of color, where they pollute residents’ air, water, and soil.
“The problem is that plastic pollution isn’t just an issue of waste accumulation,” said Mariana Del Valle Preito Cervantes with Green Latinos. “Plastics are also manufactured and often incinerated in communities where poor people and people of color live. Plastic pollution is fueling the climate crisis, hurting the health of our communities and the environment. Having the National Park Service eliminate the sale and distribution of single-use plastics in our national parks is a good first step by the Biden administration in recognizing the problem of plastic pollution.”
By eliminating single-use plastics, the National Park Service can help protect these communities.
“The National Park Service has a golden opportunity to illustrate the agency’s commitment to environmental protection by prohibiting the sale of plastic bottles in national parks,” said Judith Enck, president of Beyond Plastics. “Plastic production poisons communities where it is manufactured and is responsible for major greenhouse gas emissions. This is an environmental justice issue where we need President Biden to lead.”
“While our national parks are often called ‘America’s best idea,’ single-use plastics are one of the worst,” said Julia Cohen, managing director of the Plastic Pollution Coalition. “99% of plastics are made from fossil fuels, and plastic pollutes at every stage of its existence. We urge Secretary Haaland to eliminate the sale and use of single-use plastics in U.S. national parks. Let’s stop trashing our treasures — our national parks!”
Earlier this year, Merkley led the Senate introduction of the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act—the most comprehensive plan ever introduced in Congress to address the plastic pollution crisis that is poisoning our air, water, and land, and disproportionately impacting communities of color and low-income Americans.
Merkley was joined in sending the letter by U.S. Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Alex Padilla (D-CA), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Chris Murphy (D-CT), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Ben Cardin (D-MD), and Edward J. Markey (D-MA).
Full text of the letter is available here and follows below.
Dear Secretary Haaland,
We write to you to share our strong support for protecting our environment and our ocean from the devastating impacts of plastic pollution. Plastic pollution is more than just an environmental impact problem – it is a human health, environmental justice, and climate change crisis. The ability to properly handle these materials is overwhelming and the impact is past a crisis tipping point, which is why we are writing to urge the National Park Service (NPS) to reduce the sale or distribution of single-use plastics in our national parks.
Nearly 11 million metric tons of plastic waste enter the ocean every year – from land-based sources alone. Without any action, this flow is expected to triple to nearly 29 million metric tons by 2040.1 Single-use plastics, such as disposable water bottles, account for at least 40% of the plastic produced every year. Public lands are not only threatened directly from plastic litter, recent studies have found that national parks and wilderness areas are accumulating microplastics from the rain and wind, causing unknown impacts on critically important ecosystems.
The impacts of plastic extend far beyond harming wildlife and polluting our land – plastic production and waste management are directly contributing to climate change. The greenhouse gas emissions linked to this production are estimated to reach 1.3 billion tons by 2030, equivalent to 300 coal-fired power plants. We cannot tackle the issue of climate change or environmental justice without addressing plastic waste.
In 2011, the National Park Service Director issued Policy Memo 11-03 that allowed parks to voluntarily establish disposable plastic water bottle sale elimination programs to reduce single-use plastics in our nation’s parks. A 2017 NPS report found that this policy diverted between 1.3 and 2 million disposable plastic water bottles, a savings of up to 111,743 pounds of plastic and 141 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions. This policy was rolled back in 2017.
We urge you to direct the National Park Service to reinstate this policy. We also urge you to require that all park units establish a program to minimize the sale of disposable plastic beverage containers. We further urge you to ensure that each National Park unit institute recycling requirements, where feasible, and plastic reduction strategies in concession contracts. We are joined in this request by over 300 environmental and environmental justice organizations and businesses who wrote to you earlier this month calling for the elimination of single-use plastics in our National Parks.
As the agency tasked with promoting public stewardship through education and engagement, we believe the NPS can play a critical role in educating the public about the threat of plastic pollution and can lead by example in reducing plastic pollution to protect the health of our public lands for future generations of the American public. We thank you for your continued leadership and look forward to working with you on this critical issue.
 “Breaking the Plastic Wave: A Comprehensive Assessment of Pathways Towards Stopping Ocean Plastic Pollution.” Pew Charitable Trusts. 2020.
 Geyer et al., “Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made” Science. 2017.
 “Plastics & Climate: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet.” Center for International Environmental Law. 2019.
 “Disposable Plastic Water Bottle Recycling and Reduction Program Evaluation Report.” National Park Service. 2017.