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Littering in National Parks
It is no surprise that this perennial problem continues to be in the news. The average American generates over 4 pounds of trash per day, and 300 million people or more visit our National Parks each year.1 A tremendous amount of garbage ends up as litter in our National Parks, and even more washes into beaches and waterways that are part of our network of federal lands.
What causes the litter problems in national parks, what are its impacts, and how are individuals and federal agencies combating this growing problem?
Why Are Our National Parks Getting Trashed?
Even when the park system is fully staffed and visitor levels are stable, litter in our national parks has always been an issue. Visitor education, recycling separation, and technological improvements like GPS container reporting help to manage the tons of garbage that must be handled during normal operations. However, the system can easily break down under times of government shutdown, limited funding, or high user demand.
Some examples include:
- Marine trash cleanup efforts ongoing since 2015, which remove tons of trash from national park beaches annually, adding significantly to the volume of litter requiring disposal each year.2
- The government shutdown of 2019—parks remained open with very limited or no staff to manage sanitation facilities or supervise park usage.3
- The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, which saw dramatic increases in park visitors while services were curtailed or insufficient to meet the demand.4
- Ongoing issues with displaced or homeless individuals or first-time campers who are unaware of proper sanitation procedures or do not have the equipment and resources to comply.
Tarnishing a National Treasure
The amount and types of trash in our national parks goes beyond a few granola bar wrappers and empty water bottles. Visitors and park officials have reported human waste, toilet paper, appliances, abandoned vehicles, diapers, and medical waste as part of their growing issue. Household garbage dumping and increased amounts of trash generated inside the parks combine to deface their natural beauty, endanger visitor health, and habituate wildlife to feasting on human garbage. Whether you are a park visitor or not, these lands are held in trust for you and your descendants, and everyone shares a responsibility to help turn the tide on the problem and restore our national treasures to their former beauty and environmentally vital role in our society.
How Can the Tide of Trash Be Turned?
Maintaining our national parks and keeping them open for recreation and responsible use is part of the mandate of the parks service, but we all share responsibility for our national resources. Taking steps to reduce your footprint when you visit public lands, and even in your daily life, can help reduce the problem of litter in national parks, waterways, and forests.
Consider these tips as you strive to “leave no trace”:
- Always dispose of trash in an appropriate container, even when you are not at the park, to reduce blow-away litter, plastic bags, runaway balloons, and other waste entering oceans, lakes, or rivers.
- Reduce or eliminate your use of “single use” plastics, like disposable water bottles or snack packages.
- Report misuse of public lands including household garbage dumps, unlawful fires, hazardous chemical disposal, or RV waste dumping.
- Bring reusable containers with you to the park, and pack out what you bring in, including your trash.
- Plan for trash removal and reduction when you schedule family celebrations or gatherings in national, state, and local parks.
- Purchase and use biodegradable soaps, shampoos, and toiletries when camping, and properly recycle the containers.
- Volunteer to assist with cleanup or maintenance of your area parks, trails, campgrounds, and sport facilities in times of limited staffing or budget cuts.
- Support recycling, waste reduction, and composting efforts in your community which reduce the amount of garbage which is likely to become litter.
Working Together to Limit Litter
Our combined efforts can restore the natural beauty and sustainability of our national parks and preserve the sanctity of these destinations for generations to come. At Global Trash Solutions, we support these efforts to properly manage and reduce the impact of waste in the environment by promoting educational resources, technological innovation, and responsible disposal practices nationwide.