It’s estimated that 1 million plastic bottles are bought around the world every minute. A few years ago, the National Parks Service decided to try and make a small dent in that number by banning water bottle sales on parkland. Now, the Trump administration has reversed that policy.
Starting in 2011, about two dozen parks participated in the ban, including San Antonio Missions and Big Thicket National Preserve in Texas. Eventually, other institutions not connected to National Parks followed their lead, including the Houston Zoo.
“We estimate we were selling around 300,000 to 325,000 individual, single-use plastic water bottles in the concession stand last year,” says Pete Riger, the zoo’s vice president of wildlife conservation. “So just by reducing that number, we’re keeping that amount of plastic out of the environment.”
The zoo just announced that policy several weeks ago. Then, last week, the Trump administration reversed the policy at the federal level.
“Parks will no longer be able to prohibit a concessioner from selling water bottles,” Parks spokesperson Jeremy Barnum told KUT.
Barnum says the move is about giving park-goers options and keeping them well hydrate. Environmentalists are calling it a favor to the bottled beverage industry.
“I was dismayed that the federal government would go backward,” said Robin Schneider with Texas Campaign for the Environment. “Now, our parks are going to be more polluted, rather than less.”
But it might not be quite that simple.
Rachel Johnson, a professor of nutrition at the University of Vermont, said when that school banned plastic water bottle sales, the consumption of soda in plastic bottles increased.
“At the end of the day, there was actually an increase in the number of plastic bottles being shipped to the University of Vermont campus,” she said.
After the research was conducted, the university made it easier for people to use refillable water bottles, something Johnson said may have reduced soda consumption.
But Schneider said there’s another option: Just get rid of the other drinks that are in plastic bottles.
It’s a proposal Johnson said makes sense.
“If you want to reduce the amount of plastic and you want to ban the use of plastic bottles, then ban plastic bottles,” she said.
And, it turns out, that’s what the Houston Zoo did. Riger said the zoo is now selling soda in cans and water in recyclable cartons. While he admits the margin isn’t quite as good, he said it’s worth it to reduce pollution.