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Corporate sponsorship: Is it good for the environment?

Coca-Cola’s sponsorship of our National Parks has come under scrutiny in recent months as the National Parks Service Director, Jon Jarvis considered banning plastic water bottles.  Coca-cola is one of the largest corporate sponsors of national parks, which is an area in dire need of funding.  Coca-cola is also one of the largest producers of bottled water in the United States.  When Director Jarvis backed down on his proposal to ban plastic water bottles after talks with Coke, speculation that the director made this choice under pressure from one of his largest commercial partners ran rampant.

For his part, Jarvis cites health concerns as his primary reason for reversing his stance on the issue.  As quoted in Waste and Recycling News:

“Banning the sale of water bottles in national parks has great symbolism, but runs counter to our healthy food initiative as it eliminates the healthiest choice for bottled drinks, leaving sugary drinks as a primary alternative.”

“A ban could pose challenges for diabetics and others with health issues who come to a park expecting bottled water to be readily available.”

It is difficult to view this reasoning as anything other than a thinly veiled attempt at retaining corporate sponsorship at the expense of the ecology in our national parks. 

First, a ban on plastic water bottles would also imply a ban on other bottled drinks. The issue is the plastic bottle, not the water. So why would the sugary drinks be there as an alternative?

Second, the issue with the availability of water goes to having a readily available source of water, preferably a free source. There has been far more public outcry over venues that offer only bottled water at a price than over the quality of the water available at public drinking fountains and bottle filling stations.

Our national parks are generally ‘carry in,carry out’ facilities where you ‘take only memories and leave only footprints’.  They are supposed to be environmental safe-havens for multiple species of plants and animals. Littering is a huge problem, and water bottles constitute 30% of the solid waste stream.

Steve Martin, a former Superintendent of Grand Canyon National Park, was the driving force behind the initial ban. According to Martin, Nestle also objected to the proposal, but it wasn’t until after talks with Coca-Cola that the plan was abandoned.

Fmr. Superintendent Steve Martin


The implication is that objections by Coca-Cola, a major contributor, carried far more weight than those of Nestle, which does not contribute to the parks program.  Martin is particularly concerned that the Park Service, a national leader in environmental sustainability, might have abandoned its stewardship responsibilities in response to corporate pressures.

Last week National Parks Service Director Jarvis announced that the parks can decide individually whether to ban plastic water bottles or not. Park superintendents must jump through a variety of hoops to accomplish this however. Superintendents must,

“complete an impact analysis that includes an assessment of the effects on visitor health and safety; submit a request in writing to their regional director and receive the approval of their regional director.”

Presumably this decision comes as a response to media speculation on the ethics of bending to Coca-Cola’s will.

For their part, Coca-Cola claims that they in no way intended to influence the Director’s decision and they never threatened to pull funding if the ban went through.  Instead, Coke proposed implementing a recycling program to cut down on the waste. Coca-Cola has contributed more than $14 million to refurbish national parks.

Still, it is undeniable that Coca-Cola stands to lose big money if water bottle sales are banned at parks concessions. Even if everything is completely above-board, the decision to reverse the ban has the appearance of a public sell-out.

This incident raises the larger question of corporate sponsorship of public property and government endeavors.  What happens when there is a conflict of interest? Whose interest will be served? The public’s, or the corporation’s?

Corporations like Coca-Cola have undoubtedly contributed millions to governments at all levels, and those funds have been used to sustain public programs. But can they be trusted not to hold those contributions hostage in return for governing decisions that favor their corporate interests? When it comes to social responsibility, can we trust manufacturers, oil companies and the like to be good stewards? Or will they use the pocket book to influence our leaders to set policies that don’t serve the public at all?

What do you think?


The Huffington Post

Waste and Recycling News

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