Visitors to the United States’ national parks will begin seeing more compostable, biodegradable and recycled materials in restaurants and gift shops as the federal government moves to stop using single-use plastic products on public lands by 2032.
Deb Haaland, the Secretary of the Interior, announced the goal this week on World Ocean Day, noting in a statement that the Department of the Interior is “uniquely positioned to do better for our Earth.” With Haaland’s order, national parks and other public lands will begin replacing single-use plastic products and packaging—anything that’s meant to be used once and then thrown away, including bottles, cups, cutlery, straws, plastic bags and containers—with more eco-friendly alternatives.
Plastic is a leading cause of ocean pollution, with an estimated 14 million tons ending up in the ocean each year, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, an international conservation organization.
Haaland notes in her order that the U.S. is one of the world’s largest producers of plastic waste, with the Interior Department on its own creating nearly 80,000 tons of trash in 2020. The single-use plastic phase-out is an opportunity for the Interior Department to “lead by example” and, hopefully, inspire others to take similar steps in the future, per Haaland’s order.
Federal officials will implement the change across more than 480 million acres of public lands, 2.5 billion acres of coastal waters along the outer continental shelf and 750 million acres of marine national monuments—20 percent of the country’s lands and waters.
“The U.S. government is a large consumer with significant market power and the ability to drive change through its waste reduction policies and procurement patterns,” according to the order.
More broadly, 27 million tons of plastic ended up in U.S. landfills in 2018, which made up 18.5 percent of all trash in U.S. landfills, according to the most recent data available from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In the same year, roughly 9 percent of plastics were recycled and another 16 percent were burned and repurposed as energy, per the EPA.
But according to a 2021 report from environmental groups Beyond Plastics and the Last Beach Cleanup, the rate of plastic recycling has gotten worse in recent years: They find that about 5 to 6 percent of plastics were recycled in 2021, as Smithsonian magazine’s Margaret Osbourne reported.
Plastic pollution harms humans and wildlife in myriad ways: researchers say it makes beaches hotter during the day and colder at night and affects the diets of baby fish. Plastic has made its way into people’s bloodstreams and babies’ feces. It’s been found in some of the world’s most remote places, including Mount Everest and, more recently, in fresh Antarctic snow.
And as Christy Leavitt, plastics campaign director for the conservation group Oceana, notes in a statement, plastics are also infiltrating the country’s national parks—the very same wild spaces the nation has decided to protect from development.
“And yet we have failed to protect them from plastic for far too long,” she says.