Outrageously, the bottled water industry has successfully lobbied Congress and, through a budget amendment, is forcing the National Park Service to sell water in disposable bottles. There are many benefits of not selling water in disposable bottles in national parks, including reducing trash at parks, carbon emissions and the litter that despoils our parks, landscape and waterways.
Every year since 2002, the Friends of Little Hunting Creek have cleaned litter in Fairfax County as part of the annual Potomac River Watershed Cleanup. Recyclable beverage containers constitute the overwhelming majority of trash. In 2011, near where fallen trees on Little Hunting Creek created a trash dam, Fairfax County employees and I surveyed 100 feet of nearby shoreline and found 3,955 items of trash, filling 40 large bags, and bulky items such as tires and grocery carts. Included were 1,971 plastic bottles, half of them water bottles. Just five months later, volunteers picked up 75 bags of trash, then another 51 bags five months after that. It’s the same story year after year after year.
In Fairfax County, litterers must be caught red-handed by police to be cited. Litterers know the chances of being caught are negligible. There is no incentive to stop littering, so the litter keeps on coming.
The International Bottled Water Association actively lobbies against laws that might reduce litter in the first place, such as deposits on beverage containers or banning sales of disposable water bottles in national parks. But the industry doesn’t bear the costs its products create, and it has no incentive to prevent its products from becoming litter.
Instead, the burden falls on local governments, taxpayers and volunteers. Litter lowers property values, harms wildlife, hurts tourism and is a disincentive for businesses to locate in a community. It spoils the natural beauty of our landscape, is an affront to our neighborhoods and undermines our sense of community.
The bottled water association cannot be blamed directly for litterers’ destructive behavior. But by opposing changes, the bottled water industry enables such behavior.
Members of the association should reflect on the words of Pope Francis in Laudato Si, “The Earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth,” and contemplate the industry’s contribution to the filth.
I invite all of its employees to participate in our next Little Hunting Creek cleanup. We work 10 sites, just eight miles from the association’s Alexandria headquarters. Or they might volunteer at the Dyke Marsh Wildlife Preserve or the George Washington Memorial Parkway, two of the 800 cleanup sites in the Potomac River watershed, where this year 24,000 volunteers picked up 1.2 million pounds of trash, including more than 250,000 beverage containers.
By participating in a cleanup, the employees of the International Bottled Water Association might learn that Pope Francis’s words are not abstract.
If National Park Service Director John Jarvis prevails in his attempt to limit sales of disposable water bottles, people who can’t buy a half-liter of water in a disposable bottle for $1 in a national park can buy a reusable water bottle for $2 or $2.50, fill it at the water fountain — making up the cost difference in two fillings — and show concern for our home.
The writer is president of Friends of Little Hunting Creek.