Trash Gathered at National Parks Reveals Need to Speed Plastic Phaseout
From July 1 to September 30 of this year, more than 500 citizen scientists recorded the litter they encountered at national parks and federal lands across the country as part of the Plastic-Free Parks TrashBlitz. Now, the results are in and they indicate that policy makers need to speed up their timeline for getting single-use plastic off of public lands.
“As a result of the nationwide Plastic-Free Parks TrashBlitz, we have solid data that shows single-use plastic items make up the majority of trash escaping the waste stream and ultimately harming the health of our people, wildlife, and waterways in our most cherished landscapes,” 5 Gyres Institute Policy Director Alison Waliszewski said in a statement emailed to EcoWatch. “We must take immediate action to reduce plastic pollution at its source — by eliminating the sale, distribution, and usage of all single-use disposable plastics and investing in reuse infrastructure and sustainable packaging choices.”
The Plastic Problem
The Plastic-Free Parks TrashBlitz was a project of 5 Gyres and both corporate and nonprofit partners including Oceana, Plastic Free July, Break Free From Plastic and Klean Kanteen. It saw 558 volunteers join 44 cleanups at both national parks and other public lands like urban parks and national monuments, according to the report released Tuesday. As the volunteers picked up litter, they also recorded what they found.
The results confirm that single-use plastic is a major problem at national parks, making up 81 percent of the 14,237 pieces of trash noted in the report. They also reveal that park visitors need to be more careful with their smokes and their snacks. Cigarette butts were the top item littered at nearly 4,000 found and 45 percent of the litter picked up was food packaging, with volunteers reporting 355 cups, 294 straws, 278 lids, 133 utensils and 91 plates.
The report also recorded items by type and brand. The top 10 most commonly tossed items were:
- Cigarette butts
- Plastic bottles
- Bottle caps
- Textiles like clothing and shoes
- Metal bottles and cans
The top 10 most commonly observed brands were:
- Nature Valley
- Crystal Geyser
The report also looked at 14,780 pounds of trash collected at the annual Yosemite Facelift cleanup event in Yosemite National Park. Based on a random sampling of the collected items, TrashBlitz volunteers found similar top offenders, with food wrappers, bottles, cigarette butts, bottle caps and textiles being the most common items cleared and Camel, Marlboro, Nature Valley, Parliament and Kirkland being the most littered brands.
The entire purpose of the TrashBlitz data collection was to inform national, local and individual decision making. This June, the Department of the Interior announced it would stop the buying, selling and distribution of single-use plastics on public lands by 2032. However, the organizations behind the report say the findings prove this is too slow.
“Citizen science has spoken: Plastic pollution is a problem in our national parks, and single-use plastic tops the charts of waste collected,” Oceana Campaign Director Christy Leavitt said in a statement provided to EcoWatch. “Our parks and wildlife can’t wait 10 years to reverse this pollution crisis — the Department of the Interior must phase out single-use plastics quickly so it can uphold its commitment to protect these special areas.”
The report authors also backed the Reducing Waste in National Parks Act, which would require the National Park System to create a service dedicated to lessening and, if necessary, banning single-use plastic products.
On a local level, the groups who participated in the TrashBlitz cleanups are also putting the data to use.
“We’re using TrashBlitz brand audit data from Kenilworth Park to advocate for policy measures and practices to reduce plastic and other beverage container litter being dumped in our neighborhoods, parks, and waterways in Washington, DC,” the DC chapter of the Sierra Club said in the report.
In addition, the report offered recommendations for things that parks themselves and park visitors could do to reduce waste.
- Make it easier to access water refill stations.
- Set up deposit return stations to encourage visitors to properly discard beverage bottles.
- Use reusable dishes and utensils at eateries.
- Not rely on bioplastics that often need special treatment to properly degrade.
- Properly discard cigarette butts, which are not biodegradable and can cause wildfires.
- Take all of their trash with them when they leave a park and dispose of it at home.
- Pack reusable items and avoid bringing single-use items.
- Remember many textiles and wipes contain plastic and not discard these items assuming they will biodegrade.