Are corporations running our national parks?

Coca Cola may have leaned on the National Park Service to reverse a planned ban on disposable plastic bottles at the Grand Canyon.

Watchdog group claims Coca Cola exerted inappropriate influence on park service to reverse planned ban on disposable bottles at Grand Canyon National Park

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — A plan by the National Park Service to phase out the sale of single-use bottled water at the Grand Canyon is on hold at least temporarily, while the agency works with stakeholders and the public to develop a big picture plan to address the issue of plastic waste.

The agency reversed its decision on the policy just a few days before the long-planned ban on individual plastic bottles was scheduled to go into effect, prompting charges that close ties with corporate partners and donors like Coca Cola played a role in the decision.

Documents obtained by the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a watchdog and whistleblower protection group, suggest Coca Cola may have used corporate gifts and ties to national park fundraisers to influence the National Park Service director.

Coca Cola spokesperson Susan Stribling said the company did not pressure the park service.

“When we heard about the situation, we just wanted to be part of the discussion there wasn’t any sort of pressure … we want to be part a bigger-picture solution,” Stribling said, adding that the issue goes beyond Coca Cola to the entire beverage and bottling industry.

But the company clearly does not favor the elimination of individual plastic bottles.

“We don’t support a ban on one product. What we don’t want to see is the elimination of choice,” she said.

According to the park service, removing plastic bottles from the waste stream is still a long-term goal. But the planned ban at the Grand Canyon raised more questions than it answered, including impacts to visitors of the park and whether it would set a precedent with unwanted consequences.

But PEER director Jeff Ruch isn’t buying that argument. He pointed out that Zion National Park banned plastic bottle sales two years ago without any apparent ill effect.

After reviewing a number of memos and notes from meetings obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, Ruch said it’s clear to him that corporate donations influenced national park conservation policies.

The way PEER sees it, the documents show that:

  • Lobbying by National Park Foundation President Neil Mulholland on behalf of Coca Cola, a major bottled water maker, led directly to Jarvis’ decision with Jarvis himself writing “While I applaud the intent, there are going to be consequences, since Coke is a major sponsor of our recycling efforts”;
  • This summer, according to an email from his lead staff person, “the Director’s view is NOT ban sale of bottled water, but to go the choice route” (emphasis in original).  Records indicate another dozen parks, including Yellowstone and Death Valley, had been considering bottle bans; and ,
  • Internal park memos touted the clear environmental and economic benefits of phasing out plastic water bottles.  Even an internal study by Nestle, another major bottler, conceded tap water is the preferred alternative to bottled on a lifecycle basis.

The documents obtained by PEER did not show that public safety was a consideration. It was not even a discussion item at a January 2011 summit with bottlers, concessionaires and park managers. In fact the only item added to the draft agenda was to expand discussion of bottler activities. Following that meeting, NPS research assignments revolved principally around economic issues; again, safety was not a factor.

According to Ruch, the concerns about “public safety in a desert park” appear  farfetched given that Grand Canyon had spent more than $300,000 installing watering stations and made reusable containers available.

“Consumer choice is for shopping malls, not national parks,” Ruch said. “National parks are supposed to be managed for the preservation of majestic resources not vendors’ profit margins.”

The park service may move toward adopting a national policy on disposable plastic bottles at some point in a public process, with input from users who might be affected.

The agency did host a meeting with Coca Cola representatives in response to the proposed ban on disposable waters, with the goal of finding collaborative ways to achieve sustainability goals.

A big part of that effort is to educate visitors about the benefits of national parks without disposable plastic bottles and to make phased changes, possibly on a case-by-case basis. In other cases, the agency will live with, or renegotiate existing contracts with concessioners who would be affected by such a change.

The links provided by PEER help provide context for the issue:

Trace the Coke/National Park Foundation connection

Look at the decision to block further bottle bans

Examine the environmental impact of plastic bottles in parks

View the agenda, meeting notes and outcome of bottlers meeting

Read how commercial, not public safety, concerns are being studied

See the backdrop of this controversy


8 thoughts on “Are corporations running our national parks?

  1. One question: “what did they do before plastic bottles”? When I served in the U.S.M.C. back in the middle of the last century, there was a saying, “you can find out where the Marines are, by following the empty beer cans”. I know that doesn’t answer this dilemma, just thought I’d add my 2 cents worth on the issue.

  2. Any discussion with a corporation on this subject is absurd. Of course plastic bottles should be banned, what has ever happened to common sense? If you’re not smart enough to bring your own water when you visit a State Park, stay home, you don’t belong there.

  3. It seems as if Coke’s old goal of putting a bottle of coke “within an arms length of [the customer’s] desire” has transmogrified into trying to keep the customer within an arm’s length of an iron fist. I should think Coke would try to get out in front of their potential customer’s health & ecological concerns by going retro and bringing back the classically old fashioned Blue-Green glass Coke bottle (with a reusable/resealable cap, possibly emblazoned with the name of that individual park). They could put a deposit on the bottle, but I think they should encourage the customers to keep and reuse the bottle (for water on the trip home from the Park). As long as the customers keep the bottles, those bottles would serve as a memento of their trip to the park and to buy Coke as their next beverage.

    1. Pat, I like your idea about the bottles.

      Each National Park could have it’s own style with a specific identifying feature. The bottles could become a collectible. If the bottles were made reusable and large enough, Coke, or whoever, could offer refills nationwide for a reduced price and then in turn donate a percentage of the purchase to the Park system. Could be a win win.

      1. From an environmental standpoint glass is far better than plastic, but there are a few qualifications to that claim when you’re making cheap bottles. The underlying problem is the disposable nature of the bottles, regardless of the material, and much of the environmental advantage is lost when far more glass bottles than plastic are required. Plastic bottles don’t break, and it’s very difficult to cut yourself with one. Some parks already ban glass containers, particularly around water.

        A better solution, IMHO, would be to use plastic bottles, but something similar to a Nalgene bottle instead of the flimsy bottles that are currently used. Such bottles could be made in whatever color and shape a manufacturer wants, and would be far more durable than a glass bottle, allowing one such bottle to replace multiple glass bottles. Once the consumer’s cost to acquire the bottle itself passes some threshold consumers will reuse the bottles rather than dispose of them regardless of any value as a souvenir. Bottle deposits in many states have shown that a modest deposit reduces littering to some extent, but it’s also apparent that even with a 10 cent deposit the cost of the bottle is cheap enough that many people aren’t concerned with reusing or recycling. Making the majority of consumers reuse or recycle bottles requires making them more expensive, rather than trying to encourage people to consider them collectibles.

  4. I remember reading a story in a San Francisco newspaper forty plus years ago that some ad executive was seriously trying to convince those in charge of the park system then to let him put a neon “Drink Coca Cola” on the side of Half Done in Yosemite National Park. It wouldn’t surprise me a bit if happened today since corporate america really does control congress and the senate via lobbying and political donations.

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