National Parks Are Facing Major Environmental Issue With Influx of Human Waste

by Shelby Scott

After the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, tourists absolutely flocked to America’s national parks, anxious to get back out in the world, see new things, and, most importantly, spend a little time away from home. However, with an influx of people comes an influx of problems. Now, litter is not the only waste issue at our national parks. Human waste has also become a major problem for many of the United States’ most iconic tourist destinations.

According to Boing Boing, a walloping 300 million people visited our nation’s national parks last year. A video, created by the site Half as Interesting, details the problem with so many tourists and, therefore, so much human waste. Take a peek at the video below for more info.

In a nutshell, these unique but equally stunning parks are unable to support tons of indoor plumbing or sewage systems. So, while park visitor centers obviously have restrooms of their own, the National Park Service relies on “pit toilets” primarily. Pit toilets typically reside on trailheads, overlooks, and viewpoints especially. This is, essentially, an outhouse set over top of a hole in the ground.

The human waste problem in our national parks is also significant because of cost. The video states Yellowstone National Park alone spent $12,000 on toilet paper alone in the summer of 2018. Further, given the massive amount of people that visit these iconic landmarks each year, the pit toilets fill up quickly. As such, rangers must dig new toilets elsewhere every year or so.

One other factor that leaves us questioning the ideology behind the pit toilet is in regard to decomposition. Truthfully, we don’t actually know how long it takes for all that waste and toilet paper to decompose.

That said, the video states the pit toilet is still the ecologically best solution.

Some National Parks Use the ‘Vault Toilet’

While pit toilets are the most ecologically sound for our national parks, it has caused issues with tourists. Per the clip, some have fallen in for reasons like trying to retrieve a dropped cell phone. To prevent tourists from plummeting into a pile of poop, some parks have adopted vault toilets.

Unlike the pit toilet, the vault toilet has a removable underground tank. However, they’re incredible inconvenient for park rangers as, on occasion, they’re required to remove the tanks and haul them out. These tanks are then picked up by helicopters. In order to best keep up with the human waste problem, both Olympic and Zion National Parks have an entire day dedicated to emptying the vault toilets.

One other growing problem is that some park visitors have opted to simply relieve themselves in nearby water sources such as rivers and lakes or target a good ole tree in the backcountry. This idea might eliminate some of the literal crap that fills pit and vault toilets, however, it more directly affects the local environment.

For example, the nitrogen level in Rocky Mountain National Park’s Bear Lake is extremely elevated as more people are choosing to urinate in the water. Recently, plumbing companies have created more environmentally friendly waste removal options however, restricted national park budgets make it extremely difficult to afford.