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100,000 Signatures Overcome Coca-Cola in National Park Bottle-Ban Debate

Raz Godelnik headshotWords by Raz Godelnik
Energy & Environment

If you’re looking for good news for the holiday season, we’ve got something for you. The proposed ban on sales of disposable plastic water bottles in the Grand Canyon National Park, which had been abruptly shelved last year following alleged pressure from Coca-Cola is now moving forward and would take effect next year. One of the reasons for this change seems to be 100,000 signatures on a Change.org petition calling the National Park Service (NPS) to reconsider the ban.

The Change.org campaign started after the New York Times unveiled this story on November, arguing that NPS Director, Jon Jarvis, blocked the plan to ban the sale of water bottles in the Grand Canyon, after conversations with Coca-Cola, a major donor to the National Park Foundation. “While I applaud the intent” of the proposed new rule, Jarvis wrote last year in an email, “there are going to be consequences, since Coke is a major sponsor of our recycling efforts.”

Mr. Jarvis denied that Coca-Cola influenced his decision, but that wasn’t very convincing. At least, it didn’t convince Stiv Wilson, who works for the nonprofit 5 Gyres, which is focusing on the global impacts of plastic pollution. The fact that plastic bottles make up 30 percent of all the waste in the Grand Canyon and the idea that the NPS is giving more consideration to Coca-Cola’s commercial concerns than to the environmental impacts of the plastic waste drove Wilson to action.

He wrote a petition on Change.org that was addressed to Jarvis, asking him to reconsider his decision and “say no to industry bullying. Institute a ban on plastic bottles in the Grand Canyon.” Apparently many people found his argument against “risking the majesty of national treasure,” and “contributing to a legacy of treating the ocean like a garbage dump for a relationship with a company that is hell bent on opposing REAL solutions to their product's impact” compelling. In just a couple of weeks, tens of thousands of people signed the petition, and as of the writing of this post, the number of signatures has reached almost 100,000.

Apparently someone has listened. Last week the National Park Traveler reported that NPS Director Jarvis allows parks to ban disposable plastic bottles. Jarvis issued a directive that will let all national parks halt plastic water bottle sales as long as a regional director signs off on a rigorous impact analysis that will include “an assessment of the effects on visitor health and safety.”

In his letter Jarvis explains that a water bottle recycling and reduction policy “will allow the NPS and the park partners to reduce their environmental footprint, introduce visitors to green products and the concept of environmentally responsible purchasing, and give them the opportunity to take that environmental ethic home and apply it in their daily lives. It will also be a significant step in reducing our carbon footprint.”

So if this policy is so great, why did Jarvis stop the implementation of the ban in the Grand Canyon in the first place? There are two possibilities. The first version is offered by NPS spokesman David Barna, suggesting that “Jon Jarvis wants to get rid of water bottles in parks. That’s the goal. We want to do this. The issue with Grand Canyon is it’s such a big park and it sets such a big precedent." Jarvis himself said his initial decision was driven by “the servicewide implications to our concessions contracts, and frankly the concern for public safety in a desert park.” Did the Change.org petition play any part in formulating the new directive? Not according to this version.

We’ll call the other version ‘the skeptical reader’ version. According to this alternative scenario, Jarvis might be a sustainable champion, but he also didn’t want to make a $13 million donor angry so he put a hold on the ban. The skeptical reader would suspect it because the involvement of the National Park Foundation, the donation-receiving arm of NPS, in the decision and because it was a last minute veto for a process that was taking place over a year. This read gains credence from Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), which reports that they’ve heard from NPS employees that a major gift from Coca-Cola to the National Park Foundation was made contingent on lifting the Grand Canyon bottle ban.

The skeptical reader would assume that the article in the NYT and the petition on Change.org got NPS and Jarvis to understand that first, this story is on the public agenda now and second, the public is very unhappy with the fact that NPS put Coca Cola before the environment. Jarvis understood that it doesn’t make sense and came up with the new directive, hoping that the public will be satisfied and Coca-Cola will understand he didn’t have a choice.

Wilson is actually not completely satisfied. "While it is commendable that the National Park Service has decided not to completely kow to Coca-Cola on a plastic bottle ban, the new policy is still troubling. If the barriers to implementation of bottle bans are too cost-prohibitive or onerous for the superintendents to act, then we've only witnessed a bait and switch," he told USATODAY.com.

In any event, Wilson should be happy. The ban is expected now to be implemented in the Grand Canyon by spring of 2012, and no matter how flawed the directive is, Wilson still seems to be responsible for the best Christmas gift the Grand Canyon National Park got this year.

Image credit: Phae, Flickr Creative Commons

Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry in the digital age. He is also an adjunct professor in the University of Delaware’s Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics.

Raz Godelnik headshotRaz Godelnik

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor and the Co-Director of the MS in Strategic Design & Management program at Parsons School of Design in New York. Currently, his research projects focus on the impact of the sharing economy on traditional business, the sharing economy and cities’ resilience, the future of design thinking, and the integration of sustainability into Millennials’ lifestyles. Raz is the co-founder of two green startups – Hemper Jeans and Eco-Libris and holds an MBA from Tel Aviv University.

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