Can we manage to use less stuff without resorting to bans?
The Trump administration took some lumps this month for reversing an Obama-era policy that allowed a ban on plastic water bottles in national parks.
Let's take a step back and examine this from a common-sense point of view.
First, the ban itself was very limited. The National Park Service adopted the policy in 2011, but the official stance was that the ban was encouraged, but not mandatory. The policy had been implemented at just 23 of 417 park service locations. Also, the policy did not actually ban plastic water bottles, but it did ban their sale.
Parks that went along with the ban had to install water bottle filling stations and add signage letting visitors know where to find the fountains. I assume those stations will remain, along with the message to visitors that they should use refillable water bottles to help the environment. That's a great lesson that other public places, both private and public, should emulate.
Also, the ban applied only to bottled water. Parks with the ban still could, and did, sell other drinks packaged in plastic bottles, like soft drinks. Why make it difficult for park visitors to drink water but not unhealthy drinks? I acknowledge that's also an argument in favor of banning all drink bottles, but it's still a valid point. If you're trying to reduce plastic bottle waste, why single out only one product, and specifically one that's healthy and important for the health and safety of hikers and backpackers?
Finally, the target was supposed to be pollution, but it ended up being plastic. Some national parks have a serious problem with litter. But if water was sold in paperboard cartons, pouches, glass, aluminum or, heck, paper bags, some people would still toss them on the ground instead of disposing or recycling them properly. That's a cultural issue that needs to be changed.
This doesn't mean I'm encouraging people to use single-use plastic water bottles. I want to discourage everyone from buying them. Consumers buy far too much bottled water and consume them even in places where they can easily use a refillable container instead, like home and work. Canteens and other refillable containers are the better environmental choice; that's a decision I make every day, and I hope others do, too.
But there's a difference between encouraging the right behavior and banning a product. There is a need for single-use packaging. Water bottles are easy to recycle, and they have value to recyclers. And today's bottles are a lot lighter than bottles sold just a few years ago, meaning they use a lot less PET resin.
I would like to see more states, or even the federal government, put deposit systems in place to encourage recycling and discourage litter. That would have a greater impact on the environment than the largely symbolic policy that had been implemented in some national parks.
Loepp is editor of Plastics News and author of The Plastics Blog. Follow him on Twitter @donloepp.