Single-use plastic is on its way out of national parks. But why is the pace so glacial?

Eliminating waste is crucial, but experts argue this timeline is too long.
Compostable plastic cups found in garbage.
Other single-use items made from bioplastics or glass might still come with problems. Brian Yurasits on Unsplash

Not even a tenth of all the plastic ever created has been recycled. Instead, millions of tons of waste end up in our oceans yearly, according to the US Interior Department. The department acknowledges that the US drives a significant amount of that waste, with the government being one of the largest consumers of plastic products.

To that end, US Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland recently ordered her agency to phase out the purchase or distribution of single-use plastics on the hundreds of millions of acres of public land the department oversees. But, an official ban on single-use plastics wouldn’t hit until 2032.

Within roughly nine months, the Interior Department’s various bureaus and offices will need to submit draft plans for how and when they will gradually reduce their purchase and use of single-use plastic products, according to the order. The order will also require staff to file “annual reporting on progress” and other related administrative milestones.

“Plastic waste is a priority environmental problem. Less than 10 percent of all the plastic ever produced has been recycled, and recycling rates are not increasing,” the order, published on World Ocean Day (June 8), states. “Plastics, including unnecessary and easily substituted single-use plastic products, are devastating fish and wildlife around the world.”

Some ocean advocacy groups want the department to eliminate its use of such products much faster than that, criticizing the federal agency’s decade-long timeline for reaching that goal. “With over 11 million metric tons of plastic entering our ocean each year and plastic production expected to triple by 2060, we cannot afford to wait ten years,” Nicholas Mallos, senior director of Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas Program, stated in a press release.

The Interior Department can and should institute a ban with a much sooner deadline, says Alison Waliszewski, policy and outreach manager at the 5 Gyres Institute, a non-profit dedicated to plastic pollution reduction and research. Neither the National Park Service (NPS) nor the Interior Department, which oversees the NPS, have made an official available for an interview on the timeline for the ban.

“It is commendable that they are working to phase out the sale of single-use plastics on federal lands and US national parks,” says Waliszewski. “However, the timeline, I’d say it’s less than ideal.” After all, she says, significant scientific achievements like putting a human on the moon took less time than that.

Still, despite a push for faster timelines, Mallos tells Popular Science that vendor contracts may hold the department back from a more rapid transition. Vendor agreements may not give officials much flexibility to end deals early, and certain contracts might only allow the bureaus and offices to select from certain single-use plastic goods. Those contracts often have a fixed period as well. 

To that end, Haaland’s order requires department officials to review vendor contracts “to identify single-use plastic product reduction opportunities and challenges.” Essentially, officials must look for language in the agreements that either expedite or hinder progress toward the goal. But what a more aggressive timeline might look like is difficult to calculate without more information about the current contracts and the products, Mallos says.

“It’s hard to know with precision an appropriate timeline for eliminating single-use plastics [within the department’s purview] because we’ve never tried,” says Mallos. “It’s not dissimilar to [electric vehicles]—a decade ago every car maker said it was impossible, now we have three different EV pickup trucks on the market.”

However, he notes that single-use plastic water bottles “are the easiest to remove,” partly because water reuse and refill technology, like reusable water bottle stations, is already normalized outside federal lands.

Mallos explained that safe dispensers and bins already exist for hygienic storage and sale of dry goods and snacks “could likely be the next shift we see” within the department. Still, any individually wrapped foods (like single-serving, plastic-wrapped granola bars ubiquitous on any national park trip) would be “the hardest items” to go plastic-free.

[Related: Horrific blobs of ‘plastitar’ are gunking up Atlantic beaches.]

Haaland’s order also instructed the Interior Department’s bureaus and offices to analyze “nonhazardous, environmentally preferable alternatives” to single-use plastics, including compostable or biodegradable products. “Bags made of paper, bioplastics, and composite can replace single use plastic bags, as can reusable cloth or thicker plastic alternatives,” the order stated. “Bottles made of bioplastics, glass, and aluminum, and laminated cartons can replace single-use plastic bottles, as can reusable bottles made of glass, aluminum, or stainless steel.”

But not all products that aren’t wholly derived from fossil fuels will necessarily be better options. Mallos added that the department shouldn’t rush the transition—products that are often just as environmentally unfriendly as single-use plastics can’t simply be swapped in. He notes that many compostable products only break down as intended in industrial facilities. Many containers seemingly made of paper will still have plastic liners, so it’s critical to have the “back-end infrastructure [to ensure] materials chosen aren’t equally indisposable.”

Mallos and Waliszewsk specifically expressed concern over bioplastics as a potential replacement avenue. They are made at least partly from plant-based materials like corn or sugarcane, bioplastic single-use utensils, bags, bottles, and even packing peanuts. But Mallos notes that while bioplastics may have a climate benefit because of their lack of fossil fuels, they still break down and pollute ecosystems. 

Additionally, chemical toxicity concerns with traditional plastics aren’t necessarily avoided with bioplastics, as bio-based plastics and conventional plastics often contain several chemicals that make them similarly toxic, according to a 2020 study in the journal Environment International.

“I think what the most concerning aspect … is the multiple mentions of bioplastics as a solution and that’s really alarming,” says Waliszewsk. “It doesn’t matter if plastics are made from plants, they still end up having the same impact as plastics derived from fossil fuels [because] they still end up being single use items that are toxic or used for maybe 15 minutes and then break up into smaller pieces.”

While visitors to America’s federal lands and national parks can help by only bringing and leaving with durable, reusable packaging and goods, Mallos says that a combination of legislation and commercial innovation will be the most effective tools to deal with the dilemma.

“Industry-led innovation was a major contributor to the plastic pollution crisis and it is going to have to be part of the solution to getting out of it,” says Mallos, calling the new Interior Department policy “an important forcing function.”

“We just need policies and regulations to step up and force [commercial manufacturers of plastic products] to use this innovation to drive towards a more circular economy.”