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National parks take out the trash (cans)

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It’s last call for that all-American rite of summer vacation: a hike or family picnic in a national park. Heads up, though. That park might be BYOB, as in bring your own garbage bag. That’s because at more and more national parks, trash cans are disappearing along with federal dollars.

A couple weeks ago, I went for a day hike in Great Falls Park, in Virginia. My friend Stephanie Van Bebber came too, along with her little kid and their dog. As happens with little kids and dogs, nature called in a rather inconvenient place. By the end, Steph was carrying something one of our group left behind.

It was in a bag. Tightly cinched.

It’s from one of my walking partners,” Steph said. “And now I want a trash can.”

There weren’t trashcans on the trail, of course. Or in the big picnic area. Or even the bathroom. That’s because Great Falls removed its trash cans this year as part of a new waste management strategy. “Carry in/Carry out” is a core backcountry principle. Applying it here in this land of baby diapers and grills and hamburger wrappers means changing behavior.

I was shocked. I was shocked,” said Ricky Bush, who was having a family cookout at Great Falls. “I just never been in a park where they don’t have trash cans.” 

His wife Lynn said she was a little annoyed, since they had to pay to get into the park.

On the other hand, she said, “It actually looks much cleaner, because usually when you come here the trash cans are overflowing. So it actually looks nicer.”

It turns out when people are asked to take their trash home, they generally do. The proof is right across the river, where the C&O Canal National Historical Park has been trash-can-free for more than a decade. The Great Falls site manager says his trash-free program in rooted in sustainability. For other parks it’s about sequestration and budget cuts.

Well, we had to reduce costs this year, like all of the national parks,” said Patty Wissinger, superintendent of the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area in Georgia, where more than three million people go every year to beat the Atlanta heat.

Trash operations and picking up litter are pretty expensive for us,” she said. “Because we’re spread out 48 miles, we have 18 different recreation areas in those 48 miles that we’ve got trash cans at.”

Or did, until April, when they took out 134 of them. The fuel, vehicle, and labor savings add up to about $76,000  – still just part of Chattahoochee’s required budget cut. And Chattahoochee’s not alone. National parks in Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Florida and Mississippi have all reduced or removed trash cans as budgets tightened in recent years.

Patty Wissinger says she’s been pleasantly surprised how supportive people are. There’s just one group of holdouts.

What we just haven’t seemed to be able to conquer yet is how to get people to take their pet waste with them when they leave the park,” she says.

They just leave it in politely tied baggies along the trail. But Wissinger also points out that, years ago, nobody bagged their pet waste at all. Behavior does change. And as trash cans disappear from parks, it will just have to change a little faster.

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