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National Parks Will Soon Be BYOB
The Interior Department has announced a goal to eliminate single-use plastic products in national parks and public lands over the next 10 years.
Last week the US Department of the Interior announced a goal of phasing out single-use products and plastic water bottles at national parks and other public lands over the next decade. Plastics make up a large portion of the 80,000 tons of municipal solid waste generated on interior-managed lands. The CEO of the Plastics Industry Association called the announcement “disappointing″ and counterproductive. He urged the department to improve recycling infrastructure in parks as “a better approach to sustainability.″
Nationally, less than 10% of the plastic that has ever been produced has been recycled, and recycling rates have been fairly steady for the past 10 years. The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that about 18.5% of all municipal waste sent to US landfills in 2018 was in the form of plastics. The only category larger is food waste, which made up a little over 24% of landfill waste. The amount of plastic sent to our landfills each year has grown tremendously over the past 40 years:
Single-use products are a good example of consumption activities that generate a negative externality. The use of these products creates a benefit for the individual using them, but those consumers don’t have an incentive to take into account the cost imposed on others. Plastic bottles aren’t the only target of the new announcement. The Order also directs the Department to identify replacements for other single-use plastic products like polystyrene food and beverage containers, bottles, straws, cups, cutlery, and disposable plastic bags.
If you show up at Yellowstone without your reusable water bottle, a quick stop at the gift shop can provide some hydration benefits in exchange for a few dollars. Once you’re done with that plastic bottle, however, it will generate some external costs once it’s time to throw it away. That cost isn’t generally factored into the price of the bottle except for a few states with bottle deposit laws.
You may not see the issue since you are part of the relatively small share of Americans who drop their plastic bottle in the recycling bin. Unfortunately, even those you think you’re recycling, there’s a chance that bag full of bottles will still end up in the landfill anyway if it’s too contaminated. Hopefully, you’re not one of those park visitors that just tosses their bottles inside the park or into the river.
An outright ban on selling single-use products won’t eliminate plastics from entering the park, but it will greatly reduce the amount thrown away. An alternative policy would allow parks to continue selling single-use products, but apply a tax on each item sold so that consumers would be forced to internalize the cost of plastic waste on society.
America’s Plastic Makers are (unsurprisingly) not a fan of a plastics excise tax. Excise taxes increase the final price of the product, which reduces the amount people consume. That’s the goal of the policymaker, but companies that specialize in the production of plastic products would likely see a drop in profits, which is bad for business. These companies, along with the CEO of the Plastics Industry Association mentioned earlier, would prefer that policies focus on improving recycling rates. Increasing recycling means that they can continue to sell plastic-based products and shift the blame/responsibility onto consumers. Thankfully, Adam Ruins Everything had a nice segment on the hypocrisy around shifting the litter blame to the consumers:
While zero plastic waste may be possible throughout our park system, it’s not a realistic policy at a national level. This is often a point of contention with people who don’t want to recognize the tradeoffs associated with such a policy. The amount of financial resources needed to reduce plastic use to zero would be cost-prohibitive and take away funds from other important goals as well. It is important to reduce consumption when it generates external costs, but only to the point where the social costs are being incorporated into the price consumers pay.
The Department of the Interior is responsible for approximately 2/3rds of the estimated 640 million acres of federal land [Department of the Interior]
82% of American voters support ending the sale of single-use plastics in national parks [Oceana]
Plastic makes up 80% of all marine debris found from surface waters to deep-sea sediments [Department of the Interior]
The recycling rate for plastic (PET) bottles was 26.6% in the U.S., down 28.9% in 2018 [NAPCOR]