Every year, 312 million Americans make the journey to one of the country’s 63 national parks. While there they can enjoy scenic landscapes, take part in unique outdoor activities and connect with their families and friends, but all of this is beginning to take its toll on the environmental health of these protected landscapes and single-use plastic is the main culprit.

A recent trash audit, called the Plastic-Free Parks TrashBlitz, is a web-based data collection platform that engages local stakeholders to measure plastic pollution and other trash across various cities. Utilizing robust research protocols, TrashBlitz identifies problem products and brands, and brings diverse stakeholders together to co-create solutions to stop plastic pollution at the source.

This year’s event was held at more than 30 national parks across the country, including Yosemite National Park, Glacier National Park and the Assateague Island National Seashore. The results of the audit, compiled by The 5 Gyres Institute, a leader in the global movement against plastic pollution, found that though many Americans may be taking home memories from visiting these sites, they are also leaving behind a significant amount of trash.

At each event, volunteers submitted their findings and a trend began to emerge showing that single-use plastic is the most prevalent material polluting national parks and federal lands for the second year in a row. The data also shows that single-use plastic made up the largest portion of bulk waste collected in national parks, beating out food wrappers, cigarette butts, wipes, bottles and bottle caps, film and bags. Plastic fragments made up 25 percent of the entire study. Experts believe that plastics tend to break up into smaller pieces once they are discarded outside.

“Our national parks and federal lands are the last bastion of preserved wilderness in our country,” said Alison Waliszewski, director of programs and policy at The 5 Gyres Institute. “TrashBlitz data serves as a proverbial canary in the mine of plastic pollution and a barometer to ascertain a baseline understanding of waste trends in national parks. The trash data analyzed serves as an irrefutable reflection of how urgently we need to protect our communities, lands, and waterways from the threat of plastic pollution, which is inextricably linked to the climate crisis and impacts public health.

“We urgently need cross-sector leadership to support the Park Service in its work of phasing out single-use plastics in parks, policymakers to pass the Reducing Waste in National Parks Act, and preemptive corporate change to mitigate the onslaught of single-use plastic pollution.”

Source: The 5 Gyres Institute’s Plastic-Free National Parks TrashBlitz 2023

Results from the TrashBlitz research found that products from Marlboro, Camel, Gatorade, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Starbucks and Budweiser were the top identified brands for garbage collected, while Philip Morris International was the top corporate polluter in the study.

To gather the data, project partners mobilized volunteers across the country to participate at national parks and federal lands like urban parks, forests and monuments managed by the National Park Service. From April through November, hundreds of volunteers participated in 199 data collection and clean-up hauls across the country, inputting more than 8,000 pieces of trash into the TrashBlitz research platform.

TrashBlitz volunteers also sampled data at Yosemite Facelift, an annual cleanup event in Yosemite National Park during which 1,476 volunteers collected 10,432 pounds of trash.

“As a former river guide, current kayak and hiking enthusiast, and plastic pollution activist, I have witnessed firsthand the impacts that single-use plastics have on our environment and in our national parks throughout the years,” said Jackie Nuñez, founder of The Last Plastic Straw and Advocacy & Engagement Manager at Plastic Pollution Coalition. “It has become increasingly clear that single-use plastics do not belong anywhere, but especially not in our natural places and spaces.

“The valuable data gathered from the Plastic-Free Parks Trash Blitz shows how important it is to support the U.S. Department of the Interior's mandates in their efforts to phase out single-use plastics on all public lands, including national parks, and urges policymakers to pass the Reducing Waste in National Parks Act.”

Source: The 5 Gyres Institute’s Plastic-Free National Parks TrashBlitz 2023

Source: The 5 Gyres Institute’s Plastic-Free National Parks TrashBlitz 2023

According to the experts who compiled the data from Plastic-Free Parks TrashBlitz, the results underscore an urgent need to address single-use plastic in national parks. In addition to passing legislation like the Reducing Waste in National Parks Act, experts recommend banning several of the top items found.

The report also recommends expanding TrashBlitz audits across the National Parks Service next year to better track trends. This year’s audit had plastic making up 66 percent of material recorded, compared to last year’s 81 percent, however, with limited data, it is difficult to determine if the results represent a trend across all parks.

“This report underlines how pervasive plastic pollution is,” said Tom Ford, chief executive officer at The Bay Foundation. “Plastics are ubiquitous even in spaces dedicated to safeguarding unimpaired natural and cultural resources. Eighty-two percent of Americans support ending the sale and distribution of single-use plastics in national parks and lands. Empowering community scientists around the country to continue to track data is paramount. In parallel, we must take bold action to support the Parks Service in preventing single-use plastics at the source and in advancing reuse and refill systems.”

To help counter this increase in single-use plastic waste, many parks have instituted programs to reduce or ban these types of plastics at national parks. Last year, Yosemite Hospitality banned single-use plastic bottles entirely.

"As a climber and a scientist, I am excited to reveal the results of our extensive analysis of the trash in national parks and federal lands. This will allow us to better understand how to prevent trash from getting into the environment and teach us personally how to be better rock climber stewards so  we can respectfully recreate in these special landscapes,” said Dr. Win Cowger, research director at the Moore Institute of Plastic Research.

Moving forward, the report recommends several actions to help reduce single-use plastic usage in parks and improve tracking. One of the key recommendations is expanding TrashBlitz audits across the National Parks Service next year to track trends. The report also recommends increasing access to water filling stations and implementing reusable plates and utensils for on-site dining.