Environment

Plastics make National Parks even more environmentally friendly

Plastics provides accessibility, safety, and new opportunities in our National Parks.

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Plastics provides accessibility, safety, and new opportunities in our National Parks.

Renewed calls to ban plastics in America’s National Parks threaten a material that provides accessibility, safety, and new opportunities for our outdoor spaces. Not only do plastic products provide families with safe and accessible food and beverage options, but recycled plastic also makes park infrastructure stronger and long-lasting. Furthermore, plastics support National Park efforts to increase renewable energy infrastructure and meet sustainability goals.

Plastics contribute to more durable park infrastructure

Our National Parks are vital to making the outdoors accessible to everyone, regardless of age, ableness, race, or ethnicity. It’s expensive to ensure that walkways are accessible to all, benches and picnic tables can endure extreme weather and high usage, and signs and trail heads are legible and easily identified.

However, recycled plastic, which is used to make outdoor furniture, walkways, and fencing, is more durable than wood or concrete and requires less maintenance, reducing costs for cleanup and fix-it crews inside parks. This is particularly helpful in remote areas or in parks that experience extreme weather events. Plastic and recycled plastic are also more affordable, freeing up park funds that can be used for other programs and infrastructure improvement. Using recycled plastic in infrastructure also contributes to the growing plastics circular economy to ensure that no plastic ends up in the environment.

The boardwalks surrounding the Old Faithful Geyser in Yellowstone National Park, for example, are made from recycled plastic the equivalent of three million plastic milk jugs. These walkways not only have a lower environmental footprint than alternatives, but also protect both visitors and natural spaces while increasing accessibility for all. National Park signs, which are durable and resistant to extreme weather, are made of HDPE plastic which ensure that guests remain safe and trails are clearly defined.

Plastics make parks more environmentally friendly

While recycled plastic products ensure that National Parks are accessible and safe, this versatile material is also helping the U.S. National Park system increase energy efficiency and boost the use of renewable energy sources. Over the last decade, the National Park Service has made it a priority to improve existing infrastructure, like new windows, efficient heating and lighting systems, and better insulation components, which is all made possible and affordable with innovative plastic products.

Insulation made from plastics, like expanded polystyrene, can save over 200 times the energy used during the production process and creates additional barriers to keep heated or cooled air from leaking. Compared to alternatives, plastic construction materials save 467.2 trillion Btu (British Thermal Units) of energy in just one year, equivalent to the average annual energy needs of 4.6 million U.S. households. Furthermore, plastic window frames increase heating efficiency and save nearly 2 trillion Btu of energy per year, reducing reliance on more energy intense sources.

Plastic polymers also account for vital components in solar panels and wind turbines, which National Parks are using more often. The solar panels at Lamar Buffalo Ranch in Yellowstone National Park use plastic semiconductors to meet 100% of electrical needs, reducing the park’s environmental footprint.

Industry creates opportunity from waste

Recycled plastic is already being used in parks to improve infrastructure, but plastic recycled inside parks is being viewed as a resource and a new opportunity instead of waste. And industry is helping ensure that all plastic is recycled and reused.

The three million milk jugs that were recycled to make decking in Yellowstone were donated by Unilever, a long-time supporter of the National Park system. In early 2021, Tupperware Brands announced that it will work to divert nearly 10 million plastic bottles from national parks after donating $1 million to the park system in 2020. To encourage recycling of plastic in parks, Yellowstone National Park is working with Universal Textiles and Signature Crypton Carpet to recycle plastics into carpet, which has helped to divert nearly 50% of the parks’ waste from landfills. These efforts are ensuring that all plastic used and reused in parks is benefitting the environment.

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