Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Bottled Water Battles

UPDATE 16 December 2011: Grand Canyon may be banning bottled water early in 2012.

(Transcript of Wednesday's For the Birds)

Grand Canyon at sunrise

The Grand Canyon is not just one of America’s greatest treasures—it’s one of the seven natural wonders of the world. I’ve now visited it twice: first in April, 1982, and then this month. And unlike a lot of things, the Grand Canyon has seen a lot of wonderful improvements in the past three decades. My favorites are the water refilling stations set in a great many places along the North and South Rims, dispensing delicious spring water so that people can refill their bottles for free.

Grand Canyon Spring Water Refilling Station

Fully 30% of all the waste generated at the Grand Canyon is in the form of bottles—it’s expensive for the park to lug all the trash out, and a lot of bottles and bottle caps end up being tossed or left as litter rather than properly placed in recycling bins. To make a real difference in the waste stream, Stephen Martin, a Grand Canyon park official, planned to ban sales of bottled water once the water refilling stations were all in place. But just before the ban went into effect, National Parks Service Director Jon Jarvis blocked the ban, shortly after the Coca Cola corporation voiced its displeasure. Coke donates large sums of money to National Parks, all fully tax-deductable, giving it a lot of influence, and it did not want to lose Grand Canyon sales of Dasani bottled water, a Coke product.

The waste stream at the Grand Canyon would be reason enough to ban bottled water where it’s free and easy to fill water bottles with extremely fine spring water. But there’s another element in this disturbing equation. California Condors, especially young fledglings, have a tendency to ingest litter. Dead condors are necropsied, and a disturbing number have various items of trash in their stomachs, including plastic, glass, and bottle caps.

Dasani water bottle left as trash in a national wildlife refuge

Coca Cola claims that visitors to the park deserve to choose what kind of water they drink. But Coke and Pepsi both frequently negotiate with schools and universities, highway rest stops, and other vendors to keep people from being able to choose their competitors’ products—apparently it’s okay for corporations to limit consumer choice in the name of corporate competition but not in the name of preserving America’s last remaining wild treasures in a reasonably pristine state. And because the issue doesn’t simply involve issues of trash removal but also threatens the precious lives of critically endangered birds, it would seem like a no-brainer that the Park would not bow to high handed corporate pressure, except in such a corporatized America.

Before learning about any of this, I bought a bottle of coke on our trip, and ironically, the bottle cap had a little ad about how Coca Cola is ostensibly saving the Polar Bear. I wonder if bottles of coke sold in northern Alaska and Canada tout Coke’s work to save the condor?

Anyway, thanks to Coke’s concern about consumer choice, I decided to make the choice to stop consuming their products as long as they wield such power over national parks that supposedly belong to American citizens, not international corporations. I’ve long been a Coke drinker, and must say it’s by far my favorite soft drink, but I can live without it. I cannot live without our most precious national treasures—the breathtaking land and iconic birds that represent the very best of America.

New York Times blog article about this issue.

Read an opinion piece about the issue here.

California Condor