Don't Be Trashy: Reducing Your Footprint in National Parks

Amber Hanna & Justin MoralezNPF Blog
Yosemite National Park - iStock / Ron & Patty Thomas

Each year, the United States generates about 260 million tons of trash – that’s over 4 pounds per person, per day. While approximately one quarter of this trash is recycled, the rest is burned or dumped in landfills.

The National Park System is not immune to our nation’s bad habits. Over 300 million people visit the national parks each year, bringing in and generating millions of tons of trash. From plastic to food waste to discarded clothing, the waste brought into national parks can pollute our nation’s most pristine wilderness and wildlife.

Together, we must all work to reduce our waste impact while enjoying our remarkable national parks.

Gather Together

Two empty picnic tables sit on the shoreline of a large lake with mountains in the background, Yellowstone National Park

Picnic area at Yellowstone National Park

NPS Photo / Diane Renkin

There is nothing better than enjoying a picnic outdoors with family or friends. But the next time you lay out your blanket and pass the potato salad, think about the ways you can reduce the waste you leave behind.

  • Bring food in reusable containers and use washable napkins and tablecloths.
  • Ditch the plastic and invest in reusable straws, plates, and cutlery that can be easily rinsed clean.
  • About 30 percent of all trash in the U.S. comes just from product packaging, so try to reduce single-use packaged food products as much as possible.
  • Celebrating a special occasion in the park? Be creative with your gift-giving and consider sending an e-invite or e-card in lieu of additional paper products brought for the celebration.

Take a Hike

Two people stand next to a dirt trail, looking across Exit Glacier and the Harding Icefield; Kenai Fjords National Park

Kenai Fjords National Park

NPS Photo / James Pfeiffenberger

Hitting the trail shouldn’t mean hitting the landfill. You can make the most of your hike while keeping your waste impact low.

  • Stay hydrated but leave the plastic water bottle at home and grab a re-fillable one instead.
  • Being well-nourished is just as important, so use reusable silicone snack bags on the trail.
  • Instead of paper maps, there’s an app for that. If service is available, make use of several national park map apps. No service? Many parks apps can be downloaded ahead of time and used offline.
  • When you finally reach the summit, don’t plan on finding a trash or recycling can. Always plan ahead and decide how you’ll store any garbage until you’ve reached a proper disposal site.

Sleep Under the Stars

A starry sky frames a night view of Joshua trees and a campground tent at Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park

NPS Photo / Hannah Schwalbe

Whether you are roughing it or heading to the park in your RV, camping is often the largest source of waste at national parks. But it doesn’t have to be that way. There are plenty of opportunities to reduce the impact of your stay.

  • Living life at a simpler pace is part of a park’s appeal. Plan ahead and pack thoughtfully, but don’t overdo it with extra products that may go to waste after your visit.
  • If you forget something, the visitor center or nearby gateway community can probably help. However, make sure you are thoughtful about your purchases and be sure to take anything unused home with you.
  • If you’re headed to the showers, share toiletries with others, use bulk sizes, or opt for biodegradable products.
  • A campfire is not a trash can. Burning any products that should be properly disposed of can release harmful chemicals into the air and be detrimental to the park’s health, as well as your own.

Don’t Feed the Landfills

Denali National Park and Preserve's Eielson Visitor Center sits partly into a hillside, to give a less obtrusive appearance from afar.

Eielson Visitor Center, Denali National Park and Preserve

NPS Photo

There are plenty of ways to make the most of your national park visit while taking thoughtful steps to reduce waste, and there’s always more we can do. In partnership with Subaru of America, the National Park Foundation is committed to waste reduction by supporting unique waste management initiatives in three pilot parks: Denali National Park, Grand Teton National Park, and Yosemite National Park.

Through information sharing between park staff, local concessioners, and Subaru’s waste reduction experts, each of the pilot parks have reused, recycled, or composted millions of pounds of waste that would have otherwise ended up in the parks’ landfills. Join us as we all seek to make our national parks cleaner, safer, and healthier.


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