Message In A Bottle

11 11 2011

Three months ago, I took a personal retreat to Flagstaff AZ for a few days. I needed a little R&R to get ready for the Fall semester, and the open-minded district surrounding the NAU campus was just what I needed to unwind (read: There were three microbreweries within walking distance of one another).

On Sunday morning, I left my hotel at 3am and drove to Grand Canyon National Park, some 85 miles away. I was on a mission. If anything, what I was about to do was the antithesis of retreat in the common understanding, because my goal was to hike down to the Colorado River and back up in one day. Never mind what the websites say. Fuhgeddabout the scary signs at the trailhead. No, I was bound and determined to hike down into what is for all intents and purposes the pits of Hell…and try to hike back out. In summer. Heat be damned.

It was a little before 6:00am when I stepped off the sidewalk and onto the trail, having waited for a pre-dawn thunderstorm to clear. Naturally, it was easy going down, and I did notice it was…um…getting toastier the farther I descended the 4400 feet to the river. But the purpose of this essay is not so much to relive my hike (I did the 16 miles in 8h59m, suffered an enormous blister on the ball of my right foot, and had to literally limp my way up and out–see my pics here). No, it is to address the fact that I saw litter on the Bright Angel Trail. Plastic bottles. Wrappers. Stuff that was clearly carried into the trail in a backpack, but was dispatched with careless abandon.

Thankfully, management at GCNP was considering a ban on plastic bottles, much like is already done at Zion NP and Hawaii Volcanoes NP. But in the last few days, GCNP has backed down from its quest, and controversy has arisen that suggests that Coca Cola may have influenced this decision.

GCNP management wanted to install watering stations, and encourage people to use aluminum water bottles. Coke, of course, sells a gazillion cases of its Dasani bottled water. In convenient plastic bottles, of course. Coke’s response: They sure as heck wouldn’t want to see consumer choice reduced. Perish the thought.

Now I am not one to point fingers of blame at people or companies without sufficient evidence, but the way I see it, this is an opportunity missed by Coca Cola. Instead of ruing the day in which consumers have a smaller choice set, they could have seized the moment and played the role of proactive green.

What a chance they missed to install branded watering stations. You know. Kind of like fountain drink dispensers, but for H2O. They could also sell branded aluminum BPA-free water bottles.In a place like Arizona, the humidity is so low (regardless of elevation) that dehydration is always a problem. Hikers are MediVac’d off trails almost every day, mostly because of poor planning. Coca Cola could have been a major player in helping people avoid such calamity.

Companies need to be a little more attuned to the possibilities of being green, rather than fearful of the change. In fact, it is an American trait that we see problems as opportunities. So why didn’t Coke see it through this lens?

Probably because it was thinking in the short-run. They feared a loss in sales. But this is a long-run problem. Think about corporate image. Think about the negative effects of merely being accused of complicity. Think about the positives of addressing a problem head-on.

Those bottles that I saw along the Bright Angel Trail, if not picked up by environmentally-conscious hikers or park staffers, will be there a long time. Long after my daughters go there to hike (I have challenged them to beat my time). Long after my great-great-grandchildren whittle it down to an easy 7-hour hike. Long after the Grand Canyon has eroded a few more hundred feet through the Precambrian layers of our earthly Mother. It’s a trail worth following.

And I thirst for such forward thinking.

Dr “One Foot After The Other” Gerlich

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