Coca-Cola Trashes Grand Canyon's Bottled Water Ban

Why we should all be uneasy about corporations and national parks getting in bed together.
Is a corporate storm brewing over our national parks system? (Photo: Getty Images)
Nov 15, 2011· 2 MIN READ
Originally from Baltimore, Oliver lives and writes on a quiet, tree-lined street in Brooklyn.

In honor of America Recycles Day—the nation's only day dedicated to the promotion of recycling—it's worth taking a look at something even better.

Not having to in the first place.

Last week, an ambitious plan to ban single-use plastic water bottles in Grand Canyon National Park—responsible for 30 percent of the park's waste—was canceled at the last minute.

The reason for the change-up? As The New York Times suggested, it may have been influenced by Coca-Cola and their $14 million in donations to the National Parks Service—an allegation parks director Jon Jarvis denies.

Said Jarvis to the paper: "My decision to hold off the ban was not influenced by Coke, but rather the service-wide implications to our concessions contracts, and frankly the concern for public safety in a desert park."

Too bad Jarvis' statement has all the veracity of a Herman Cain sexual harassment denial. Here are the facts: 1) Local concession owners were already consulted and on board; 2) More than $300,000 in taxpayer money had been spent on watering stations around the desert park; 3) Most damning of all, the exact same program had already been implemented at Utah's Zion National Park with spectacular results.

Even more chafing is Coke's shameless spinning of the ban as an impingement of our civil liberties. What about bans on smoking on planes? Or flash photography in museums? Haven't we always forced the public's hand in matters of preservation and the greater good?

But never mind all that. Parks are broke, and Jarvis simply did what any public servant would do—not bite the hand that feeds him. Right?

I'm not so sure. By letting Coke set the terms of the debate, Jarvis has lost sight of what's best for both the canyon and the planet. Let's be clear: petroleum-based plastics are an unmitigated disaster for the environment. A single bottle of Dasani, which is manufactured by Coke, requires three times more water than it would by simply filling it up at the tap (and it's nothing more than repackaged municipal water in the first place). They've recently received a "D" rating for purity and safety. And no matter how much they tout their dubious "plant bottle" technology, their plastic continues to leech chemicals into the environment. If our environmental leaders can't take a stand against that, we're in a lot of trouble.

As we've seen in recent weeks, the only thing that can get corporations to take their mind off the bottom line is public pressure (just ask Bank of America or Netflix). Had Jarvis taken the park's dilemma to the public, maybe Coke would have bowed to the pressure. Another corporation might have swooped in to take advantage of the free, green publicity. We'll never know, because Jarvis made his decision behind closed doors.

What's clear is this: If corporations are going to dictate whether we can have plastic bottles in our national parks, they should be the ones to go down and clean them out. They should be installing recycling stations across the park with cash incentives for tourists that bring back empties. And they should be matching the park's bottle sales dollar for dollar, indicating an equal investment in both fancy tap water and the park. The plan's not perfect—perfection would be banishing single-use plastic containers from the planet altogether—but at this point, it's a compromise we all could live with.