A just-released email says the director of the National Park Service feared there would be “consequences” from Coca-Cola Co. if NPS went ahead with a proposed ban on the sale of single-use plastic water bottles at the Grand Canyon.
“While I applaud the intent, there are going to be consequences, since Coke is a major sponsor of our recycling efforts,” NPS director Jon Jarvis wrote in a Nov. 22, 2010, email to the regional director of the Intermountain Region of the NPS. “Let's talk about this before [the Grand Canyon] pulls the plug.”
Three days earlier, Neil Mulholland, the National Park Foundation's president and CEO, had sent an email to Jarvis saying he had been receiving “strong negative feedback from the beverage industry” regarding the potential ban.
But a Coke spokeswoman said the company never suggested it would reduce or withdraw its support to NPF if the bottled-water ban, which was originally scheduled to go into effect this past Jan. 1, became a reality. NPF is the official national charitable partner of NPS.
“Absolutely not,” said Susan Stribling, communications director for Coca-Cola Co. North America, which sells bottled water under the Dasani brand.
The NPS emails were released Dec. 2 by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. PEER obtained them after filing a lawsuit in U.S. District Court seeking NPS and NPF records regarding the scuttling of the proposed ban. Those two organizations had declined to turn over those records after a Freedom of Information Act request.
An email written by Jarvis contradicts the statement he made last month after The New York Times first disclosed that the proposed ban had been called off, possibly because of Coke's influence.
At that time, Jarvis issued a statement, saying the decision to hold off on the ban “was not influenced by Coke, but rather the servicewide implications to our concessions contracts, and frankly the concern for public safety in a desert park.”
Atlanta-based Coke said that it did discuss the proposed bottle ban with officials of NPF. According to The New York Times, Coke has contributed more than $13 million to the national parks, much of it through NPF.
“When we heard about the situation, we wanted to learn more,” Stribling said in an email response to Plastics News. “The Grand Canyon is a customer, and ... we want to ensure we understand [their concerns] and work to address them.
“Working with our partners at the National Park Foundation, we collaborated with them and other beverage-industry organizations to offer to discuss the situation, and identify solutions for how we could help address the Grand Canyon's broader sustainability platform, including the potential for recycling programs,” Stribling said.
She added that no one at Coke ever spoke “directly” with Jarvis, who ordered a regional director to inform since-retired Grand Canyon superintendent Steve Martin, in mid-December 2010, to “delay the initiative until further notice.”
Martin had obtained approval in spring of 2010 to implement the ban and informed concessioner Xanterra Parks and Resorts, in a letter dated May 12, 2010, of the ban. The ban was pulled back Dec. 22, 2010 — just 10 days before it was scheduled to go into effect.
“These documents confirm what appeared obvious — corporate donations influenced national park conservation policies,” said PEER's executive director, Jeff Ruch, referring to the email documents the group obtained after filing its lawsuit.
Another email obtained by PEER says the director has asked “that no new initiatives — e.g., water bottle bans — be implemented until a servicewide decision is developed on this issue.” And a further email said the director wanted to give consumers “choice” of beverages when visiting national parks.
Two national parks, Zion National Park in Utah, and Hawaii Volcanoes Park in Hawaii, already had bans on sales of plastic water bottles at the time of the email.
“National parks are supposed to be managed for the preservation of majestic resources, not vendors' profit margins,” Ruch said. “Consumer choice is for shopping malls, not national parks.”
PEER said the documents revealed that public safety was not a consideration in the ban, and that safety was not even a discussion item at a January 2011 summit with bottlers, concessionaires and park managers.
The cancellation of the ban has become a rallying point for public advocacy groups since The New York Times reported on the story Nov. 9.
For example, change.org, a platform for online advocacy, has gathered nearly 95,000 signatures for its online petition that asks NPS to ban the sale of disposable water bottles at the Grand Canyon.
“The National Park Service has a responsibility to keep the park free from litter, not to keep mega-corporations like Coca-Cola happy,” said Stiv Wilson, communications director for 5Gyres.org., an organization focused on eliminating plastic pollution in the oceans, and that initiated the online petition.
“The Grand Canyon belongs to all of us, and banning plastic bottles is the single best way to keep plastic waste from polluting the Grand Canyon and our oceans,” Wilson said. “We cannot let corporations like Coca-Cola shut down common-sense measures to reduce plastic pollution. The Grand Canyon Park Service must do its job and protect our public land by immediately banning plastic bottles from the canyon.”
PEER's Ruch agreed.
“It would be outrageous if corporate contributions are influencing national park management decisions,” Ruch said. “As the Park Service expands its dependence on corporate largesse, we need to make doubly sure that no strings come attached.
“The circumstances of these gifts and how they are used should be on the public record,” he said.
As for what initiatives involving water bottles or recycling may take place next at the Grand Canyon, Stribling told Plastics News that Coke is “awaiting further direction from the Park Service at this point. But [we] stand ready to work collaboratively with them and the industry to identify possible solutions and actions ... to help formulate sustainability solutions for our parks.”
She added that Coke is not in favor of eliminating plastic bottles at the National Parks.
“Eliminating plastic bottles altogether isn't the answer because it limits personal choice and doesn't address the bigger picture,” Stribling said. “People should have the choice to [decide] how they drink water in a National Park — from a bottle of Dasani, from a water fountain, from a refillable bottle. It should be the consumer's choice and while making that choice, they should also be educated on the benefits of recycling and be able to recycle their beverage packages.”
Stribling did not spell out any specific recycling initiatives that Coke has at the Grand Canyon, where plastic bottles, according to NPS, account for 30 percent of the waste stream.
Nationwide, she said Coke is “encouraging curbside recycling through the support of programs such as Recyclebank and Recycle and Win.”
“We are placing recycling bins in venues and public spaces — about 150,000 since 2008,” Stribling said. “We are conducting outreach and educating people through the Give It Back campaign and our Recycling Education Vehicles,” which visit about 250 cities a year.
She also explained why Coke does not support bottle-deposit programs, even though such laws have increased the recycling of beverage and water containers in every state where they have been enacted.
“Forced deposit programs place more comprehensive collection programs at a disadvantage by removing the most valuable materials from the collection streams and inconveniencing consumers who prefer ‘one stop' recycling for all materials,” Stribling said.
“Beverage containers represent only 4 percent of municipal solid waste, [but] they account for 40-70 percent of all revenue earned in a curbside program because the materials can be sold for reuse,” Stribling said.
“Comprehensive recycling programs like curbside collection are a more convenient and sustainable solution for solid waste recovery than programs that single out one product.”