Research aims to help national parks reduce amount of visitor-produced waste

ST. GEORGE — A recent study looking at ways to reduce the amount of visitor-produced waste in national parks found that visitors often choose not to recycle because of a perceived difficulty in doing so. 

The research, performed by the Institute of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism at Utah State University, looked at the waste disposal behaviors of visitors in Yosemite, Grand Teton and Denali national parks. 

“As we all know, national parks are busy places nowadays. Because of this increased visitor use, parks are trying to deal with more urban-type issues in relatively remote settings. This includes things like traffic, parking, and of course, waste management,” project lead Zach Miller said. “Managing these ‘frontcountry’ issues in the context of national parks is still something we are figuring out.”

In national parks across the U.S., a total of about 1 million pounds of waste is generated each year. While not all of it is visitor produced, if everyone visiting the park made efforts to reduce the amount of waste they generate, and properly sort the waste they produce, it would make a big difference in the amount that ends up in the landfill each year, Miller said. 

In Southern Utah, Zion National Park produced 129 tons of municipal solid waste, or garbage, and 105 tons of diverted waste, or recycled waste, in their fiscal year for 2018, park spokesperson Eugenne Moisa said. 

In the 2017 fiscal year, Zion produced 169 tons of garbage and 90 tons of recycling, and in 2016 they produced 182 tons of garbage and 141 tons of recycling. 

Trash and recycling bins in Zion National Park, Utah, date not specified | Photo courtesy of the National Park Service, St. George News

Visitors are going to produce waste, Miller said. And the goal is not to eliminate it completely, just cut back on the number of recyclable materials that end up in the landfill unnecessarily. 

There are a number of reasons that many visitors fail to recycle, including both real and perceived barriers that make it more difficult to do so. 

“One thing we found at both the visitor center and campground is that when people think reducing waste is difficult, they are less likely to engage in waste reduction behaviors like making efforts to plan ahead, sort their waste and avoid purchasing items that cannot be recycled,” Miller said. 

One issue that many parks face is that visitors have somewhat limited access to trash and recycling bins since national parks can only provide a certain number of bins due to limited staff employed to empty and maintain them. 

Zion has a total of 98 trash receptacles, and only 23 recycling containers placed around the park, six of which are specifically for glass or propane bottles, Moisa said, though they do make attempts to place the receptacles strategically around the park for visitor convenience.

The USU team has partnered with the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics; they have found that a critical component in leaving no trace is to plan ahead and prepare. The key being to educate visitors on how they can produce less waste before they arrive at the park. 

“Most of this would include reaching visitors before they even set foot in a park so they know what kind of facilities to expect in parks,” Miller said. 

Simply providing facts doesn’t usually change visitor behavior, however, and parks need to improve their signage and messaging, increase the number of trash and recycling bins, and strategically choose the location of those bins in order to change visitor behavior, he said.

Some visitors fail to recycle because it takes time to sort their waste at the bin, which is an example of a perceived barrier, Miller said. In their research, they are currently working to develop messaging to target the perception that it is inconvenient to recycle to see if they can change visitor behavior.

Some of the successful messaging they’ve tested in park campgrounds include information about the positive impacts that recycling has on the environment. They are currently testing to see if the same environmentally moral messaging affects recycling in park bins. 

Trash and recycling bins in Glacier National Park, Montana, date not specified | Photo courtesy of the National Park Service, St. George News

Zion, too, has worked to use “moral messaging” as a way to encourage recycling. The park offers information, available both in print and online, about the environmental impacts of recycling. 

They also post image messaging inside the shuttle buses to inform riders of recycling programs and promote proper waste management. Visitors are asked to take the “Zion Pledge,” both at the park and online through social media, which encourages the proper disposal of recycling, trash and food.

“We encourage visitors to recycle as much as possible and become co-stewards of this beautiful and natural landscape by doing so. We know visitors and employees play a critical role in helping maintain the cleanliness of Zion,” Moisa said. 

Even messaging can prove difficult, though. Many of Zion’s visitors are traveling internationally and may not understand the way that recycling works in the U.S. 

“With Zion receiving over 4 million visitors from the U.S. and abroad, recycling habits are going to be different for each visitor, and it is common to find trash mixed in with recyclables,” Moisa said. 

Something the park has tried in an attempt to combat the issue is labeling their trash and recycling bins in various languages to help visitors understand how to properly dispose of their waste. 

The park also received national recognition from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last year for the Zion Lodge’s efforts to reduce food waste by composting for over a decade. 

In 2017, the lodge’s efforts prevented 30,000 pounds of food waste from entering the landfill. 

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2019, all rights reserved.

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