Biden’s Bold Plan on Plastics Bans Them From National Parks... in 10 Years

If the order ever takes effect at all.
plastics national parks
A trash can overflows as people sit outside of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial by the Tidal Basin, Dec. 27, 2018. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

A lot can happen over 10 years. You could properly age a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon. The magnificent corpse flower could bloom twice, releasing its putrid smell into the world. We could get another “Batman” remake.

But that’s also the Biden administration’s timetable to phase out single-use plastics from public lands. On June 8, as part of National Ocean Month, the Interior Department announced it would begin phasing out the sale of single-use plastic products in national parks, wildlife refuges and other public lands by 2032.

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Yes, you read that right: It’ll take a decade to remove plastic bottles, containers, bags and cutlery from national parks, and replace them with sustainable alternatives. The Interior Department manages more than 480 million acres of public lands, on which humans produced nearly 80,000 tons of municipal waste in 2020. 

“Today’s Order will ensure that the Department’s sustainability plans include bold action on phasing out single-use plastic products as we seek to protect our natural environment and the communities around them,” said Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland in a statement. ”

The order from the Secretary of the Interior didn’t explain why the timeline was so sluggish, but it called for the department to submit a final plan within a year. VICE News reached out to the Department of Interior for comment, but they did not provide on-record information about the 10-year timeframe.

Jackie Nuñez, Advocacy and Engagement Manager for Plastic Pollution Coalition, said that it might have to do with ongoing government contracts with food and beverage suppliers.

“Although we are pleased with the announcement, we are dedicated and focused to shortening that timeline in any way possible.” she said.

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This initiative comes as part of the Biden administration’s larger plan for federal agencies to “minimize waste and support markets for recycled products.” But the U.S. is struggling to find a market for recycled materials after major buyers like China and Turkey banned imports

The U.S. also lacks strong domestic recycling infrastructure, and recycling rates are declining. According to data from the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans only recycle 5 to 6 percent of the plastic we throw out, and 14 million tons of it ends up in the ocean each year.

Again, ten years is a long time; longer than Biden will be president or Haaland a cabinet secretary ,and certainly long enough for any new administration to take office and reverse the policy. Which, by the way, has already happened … twice.

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This new plastics policy is really a reversal of a reversal. In 2011, the National Parks Service enacted a plastic water bottle ban across national parks. Six years later, the Trump administration reversed the ban. 

“Ultimately it should be up to our visitors to decide how best to keep themselves and their families hydrated during a visit to a national park,” said Michael T. Reynolds in 2017, who was Acting National Park Service Director. 

It doesn’t have to take this long. After signing its bill into law in 2019, Vermont took 13 months to ban plastic bags, straws and polystyrene takeout containers. New York state was even quicker: Its plastic bag ban went into effect in March 2020, and enforcement began by October. Canada has been much more ambitious with its plan, calling for all plastic packaging in Canada to contain at least 50 percent recycled content by 2030 and proposing a ban on single-use plastic within a year.

Which brings us back to U.S. national parks and public lands, which are supposed to be a model for conservation and sustainability for the whole country. And it’s leading the nation in saying, “Let’s keep single-use plastics around, for at least another decade.”

For Nuñez, of all places, U.S. public lands should be single-use plastic-free. “There’s no place for single use plastics out in nature.”

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