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Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland has issued an order to phase out single-use plastic products at national parks and federal lands by 2032. The policy is misguided.

Norbert Sparrow

June 9, 2022

3 Min Read
Yosemite National Park
Image courtesy of Alamy/David Wall

Single-use plastic products will be phased out of national parks and federal lands in the United States by 2032, according to an order from the US Department of the Interior. Secretary’s Order 3407 was announced on June 6, World Ocean Day, by Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland as part of President Biden’s Executive Order 14057, which calls for federal agencies to minimize waste and support markets for recycled products. The executive order reverses a Trump administration policy that prevented national parks from banning plastic water bottle sales.

The order issued by Haaland calls for the department to reduce the purchase, sale, and distribution of single-use plastic products and packaging on 480 million acres of federally managed lands, with a goal of phasing out the products by 2032, reported MarketWatch. The order directs the department to identify nonhazardous, environmentally preferable alternatives to single-use plastic products, such as compostable or biodegradable materials, or 100% recycled materials. Single-use plastic products include plastic and polystyrene food and beverage containers, bottles, straws, cups, cutlery, and disposable plastic bags that are designed for or intended to be used once and discarded, said the department on its website.

The Department of the Interior recommends that visitors to federally managed lands opt for bags made of paper, bioplastics, and composites as well as reusable cloth or thicker plastic alternatives. Bottles made of bio-based plastic, glass, and aluminum, and laminated cartons can replace single-use plastic bottles, it added, as can reusable bottles made of glass, aluminum, or stainless steel. Similar materials can replace single-use plastic in food packaging, beverage cups, tableware, and other products, said the department.

While it’s true that less than 10% of the plastic that has ever been produced has been recycled, as the department notes in its press release, polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is completely recyclable. Almost all plastic bottles are made from this material, and currently about 30% of them are recycled in the United States. Europe recycles single-use plastic bottles at a much higher rate.

Single-use PET bottles have become immensely popular across the globe because of their convenience, strength, and safety. PET also is more sustainable than glass, aluminum, and other alternative materials when one considers the energy and resources used in their production. And, as mentioned, PET is easily recyclable. Its popularity and subsequent ubiquity in trash bins and, sadly, the environment makes it an easy target.

All of us want to keep our national parks pristine, but I believe that can be achieved without a blunderbuss approach to banishing all single-use plastic products. For example, so-called compostable plastics also have issues: How long do they take to decompose? Under what environmental conditions? Will unthoughtful users simply toss them in the environment because “they will disappear”? As for glass, it breaks, and that scars the landscape and our feet.

A more sensible solution, it seems to me, would be to exempt verifiably recyclable plastics from this order and put in place a robust infrastructure to collect, segregate, and transport these convenient containers to recycling facilities. We actually need recycled materials to replace virgin resin and advance toward a circular economy.

Haaland said the 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.”

I think sustainability is more nuanced than that, but it’s a tougher sell, I know, and the messaging doesn’t fit neatly on a bumper sticker or in a news bite. It's hard to top "ban plastics" in that department.

About the Author(s)

Norbert Sparrow

Editor in chief of PlasticsToday since 2015, Norbert Sparrow has more than 30 years of editorial experience in business-to-business media. He studied journalism at the Centre Universitaire d'Etudes du Journalisme in Strasbourg, France, where he earned a master's degree.


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