Should visitors to the Grand Canyon National Park be able to buy bottled water on-site? It really is a tough question. On one hand, there's the scenic vista. No one wants to see that spoiled by trash.
But let's not forget that visitors to the park's Inner Gorge experience desert conditions. They need to stay hydrated, and many 21st century hikers don't tend to bring their own canteens.
So that's the issue — or at least it should be: A debate about convenience and safety for park visitors vs. the effort and cost involved with keeping the park clean. But instead we're seeing a debate about whether Coca-Cola Co. has stepped over the line and become a corporate bully. The evidence indicates Coke went too far, possibly threatening to pull the plug on funding for the National Park Foundation if the National Park Service went ahead with a ban on single-use plastic water bottles.
The ban was supposed to start this year, but NPF and NPS officials were convinced Coke would reduce or withdraw financial support if the ban was implemented. Staff reporter Mike Verespej writes about the inner workings of the debate this week, quoting from emails officials sent just before they abandoned the ban.
Coke implies it was a misunderstanding.
“When we heard about the situation, we wanted to learn more,” a spokeswoman said in an email 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,” she said.
But that's not how the issue is portrayed in the media. The ban has become a rallying point for public advocacy groups — and plastics are suffering in the backlash. Change.org has gathered more than 97,000 signatures on an online petition that asks NPS to ban the sale of disposable water bottles at the Grand Canyon. Stiv Wilson, communications director for 5Gyres.org, initiated the petition. It states:
“Plastic PET bottles pose a clear and present danger to the overall health of the environment and contribute to marine plastic pollution. Coca-Cola sponsors ocean conservation groups who conduct beach cleanup efforts, but Coca-Cola vehemently opposes the one solution that actually works to mitigate their product's negative effect on the environment: bottle deposits. Why are we risking the majesty of a national treasure, contributing to a legacy of treating the ocean like a garbage dump for a relationship with a company that is hellbent on opposing real solutions to their product's impact?”
Wilson says the best way to keep plastic waste from polluting the Grand Canyon is to ban single-use bottles. That's not a reasonable position. According to that logic, any number of products — made from any and all materials — should be banned, because eventually they may end up as litter. Some consumers overuse single-use plastic water bottles. And many don't dispose of them properly. There's a long-established and healthy recycling infrastructure for PET, so it's an incredible waste of resources that all of those bottles aren't being recycled. But consider this: If beverage companies did more to encourage plastics recycling, there would be less pressure today to ban single-use water bottles.