Join the Plastic-Free Parks TrashBlitz
People visiting U.S. national parks and other wild spaces are advised to leave no trace of their presence on the plants, animals and ecosystems they visit. Despite this, the Department of the Interior (DOI), which manages the nation’s parks, produced almost 80,000 tons of solid waste in 2020, much of it plastic. But what if your next national park vacation could actually have a positive impact on this problem?
Environmental nonprofit the 5 Gyres Institute and more than 20 partners have launched the Plastic-Free Parks TrashBlitz this summer that invites national park visitors to record the plastic pollution they encounter during their travels. The initiative, which will run from July 1 to September 30, comes on the heels of the DOI’s announcement that it would phase out single-use plastics on public lands, giving ordinary park lovers a chance to assist with this process.
“The data from Plastic-Free Parks TrashBlitz will contribute to a report that reveals which items are the worst offenders in our national parks,” 5 Gyres policy and outreach manager Alison Waliszewski told EcoWatch in an email. “This information can lend itself to help the Department of the Interior determine which items should be triaged and prioritized for first consideration in the phase-out process as they work with their vendors to make this happen.”
Partners in Policy
The TrashBlitz isn’t just about compiling information for its own sake, but rather to inform policy. Since 2010, environmental advocacy groups like 5 Gyres have been campaigning to get single-use plastics out of national parks. This is a goal widely supported by U.S. voters. A poll released in January by Oceana, one of 5 Gyres’ TrashBlitz partners, found that 82 percent of registered voters thought that single-use plastics shouldn’t be sold or distributed in national parks. The Plastic Free Parks coalition also presented a petition to the DOI earlier this year signed by nearly 70,000 people calling for the department to end the use of plastics in national parks.
This movement secured a victory earlier this month when Interior Secretary Deb Haaland issued an order to reduce the buying, selling and distribution of single-use plastics on public lands, with a goal to ban them entirely by 2032. However, 5 Gyres argued that the department is dragging its feet on the final phaseout.
“While we applaud Secretary Deb Haaland for her leadership and commitment to reducing plastic waste on public lands, a 10-year timeline is far too long,” Waliszewski said in a press release shared with EcoWatch.
Both 5 Gyres and partner Oceana hoped that the results from the TrashBlitz could help speed the process along.
“The more we know about the plastic pollution threatening our environment, the more effectively we can address it through policy,” Melissa Valliant, senior communications manager at Oceana, told EcoWatch in an email. “The Plastic-Free Parks TrashBlitz is an opportunity to quantifiably show lawmakers plastic pollution’s prevalence in our national parks, as well as the kinds of products and companies responsible for it. TrashBlitz’s data will help highlight the urgency around the plastics problem, and we hope it encourages the Interior Department to move swiftly in carrying out its proposed phaseout of single-use plastic in our national parks.”
Campaigners are also looking beyond a federal order to actual legislation protecting national parks, and they hope the TrashBlitz will bolster support for the Reducing Waste in National Parks Act. This act would direct the National Park Service to reduce and, if appropriate, end the sale and distribution of plastics in national parks and inform visitors of the importance of this policy.
“With enough groundswell of support and attention to the issue, we can use the report as evidential support to lobby additional members of Congress to sign-on in support of the bill and co-sponsor it,” Waliszewski told EcoWatch. “Ultimately, the legislative route is still the most efficient because it will be law, whereas the next incoming Administration could reverse the Department of the Interior’s phaseout plans.”
How It Will Work
The national parks initiative builds on 5 Gyres’s past experience using data gathering to inform plastics policy.
“5 Gyres initially created TrashBlitz as a tool to develop a robust dataset on the type and brands of waste found in different cities in order to support better local policies around plastic usage,” 5 Gyres marketing manager Andra Janieks told EcoWatch in an email.
To participate in the latest blitz, simply register through the 5 Gyres website. Once you do, you will receive more detailed instructions on how to proceed.
“It’s easy!” Janieks said. “Anyone can take part in a cleanup at any of the 63 national parks this summer.”
The initiative comes as Yellowstone National Park remains partially closed following historic rainfall and flooding this June. When asked if this might impact the data collection, Janieks said that the results would be sorted both by parks and across the system as a whole.
“After the campaign, we will look at the sample size of participants in Yellowstone National Park and determine how best to reflect this data in the report,” Janieks said. “If anything, the flooding in Yellowstone underscores the urgency of the climate crisis and further emphasizes why we need to address plastic pollution, which is a significant and growing threat to the Earth’s climate.”
There’s another way in which the blitz’s timing is fortuitous: It begins the same day as Plastic Free July. This year, the theme of the global plastic reduction month is “Turn the Tide, one choice at a time,” according to the organization’s 2022 press release. While the timing wasn’t intentional on the part of either organization, Janieks called it a “happy coincidence” and Plastic Free July founder Rebecca Prince-Ruiz agreed.
“I was delighted to hear about 5 Gyres TrashBlitz initiative launching on 1st July which works towards keeping national parks free from plastic pollution,” she told EcoWatch in an email. “Engaging people to pick up trash and collect data as the[y] head [to] any national park this summer will help scientists understand the litter problem and help support legislation to end plastic waste for a cleaner world.”
While plastic pollution is a global scourge, there’s something particularly troubling about its presence in what are supposed to be protected spaces.
“Too often, single-use plastics end up polluting national parks and clogging our waterways,” U.S. Representative Mike Quigley (IL-05) said when he re-introduced the Reducing Waste in National Parks Act in October of 2021. “When they build up along trails and streams, they pose a severe threat to the plants and animals living there.”
Ultimately, 5 Gyres hopes to honor the first inhabitants of what is now the U.S.
“Our national parks were once home to Native People who were the original stewards of these lands,” Janieks told EcoWatch. “Ridding these lands of single-use plastic is a small but important step to honor the legacy of Indigenous stewardship and to ensure that generations to come will inherit a just, healthier, and more sustainable future.”