hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues June 2018


In green gesture, town bans plastic water bottles

Great Barrington voters pass new law easily; critics push for new vote


Water bottle banRetailers in Great Barrington would be prohibited from selling plastic water bottles like these starting in May 2019 under a local law approved by voters at last month’s annual town meeting. Susan Sabino photo


Contributing writer


Supporters call it a victory for the environment: Voters at last month’s town meeting made Great Barrington the third community in the nation to ban the sale of the most common type of plastic water bottle.

The ban, approved by an estimated 2-1 margin in a show of hands at the May 7 annual town meeting, applies to single-serve containers made from PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic for non-carbonated, unflavored drinking water. The ban would take effect in May 2019.

But despite the apparently wide margin of the town’s vote, local opponents have launched a petition drive to put the article up for reconsideration at a special town meeting. Opponents are working to collect at least 200 signatures to force a revote.

Its backers say the new Great Barrington law has two main objectives. One is to reduce the use of plastic containers; the other is to curb sales of bottled water, the consumption of which, critics say, supports an unnecessarily resource-intensive industry when the public tap water in most communities is just as good.

“In the face of an alarming environmental situation, Great Barrington stepped up to the plate,” said Jennifer Clark, who initiated the campaign that led to the article and its passage.

Starting next May, the new town law calls for fines ranging from $50 to $200 per day for any business that persists in selling water in plastic containers of 1 liter or less.


Environmental hazard
The Great Barrington ban on plastic bottled water is part of a global push by environmentalists to reduce or even eventually eliminate the use of non-biodegradable plastics, thereby reducing litter and curbing the spread of plastics into the oceans and food chain.

Although PET plastic is recyclable in theory, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated in 2016 that because there are few markets for the recycled material, nearly 70 percent of plastic bottles wind up in landfills or as litter.

Proponents of the town’s ban cited estimates that there are already more than 150 million tons of plastic in the world’s oceans – and that every year, 1 million birds and more than 100,000 sea mammals die from eating or getting tangled in plastic waste. There are also concerns about the health effects of plastic as a container for food and drinks.

In addition, Great Barrington’s new law specifically targets bottled water because of concerns about privatization of a public resource, as multi-national corporations like Coca-Cola have been acquiring water sources. Critics also point out that some bottled water is simply tap water.
The Environment Committee of Berkshire Women’s Action Group and Indivisible Berkshires supported the campaign for the new Great Barrington law.

Clark, a local designer and artist, said the idea for the law occurred to her after she saw the 2016 documentary film “A Plastic Ocean.” She said the film showed how solid plastic debris in the ocean breaks down into small particulates that enter the food chain and threaten marine life, eventually posing risks for humans and other land animals as well.

“It was a real eye-opener,” Clark said. “It effectively depicts the dramatic devastation being created by plastics. As I left the theater, I knew that doing something about it was a project that I wanted to do.”


Pushing for a vote
Clark proposed the idea for the water-bottle ban at a meeting of the Women’s Action Group.
“They were deciding on what projects they wanted to undertake,” she said. “This project resonated with them, and they agreed to organize it.”

Clark said the ban is one phase of an initiative called GB On Tap that encourages people to use tap water and refillable containers. The project also aims to make safe public drinking water more accessible through a combination of setting up hydration stations and providing discounted reusable water bottles and voluntary refills at participating merchants.

Great Barrington’s effort has drawn inspiration from two other Massachusetts towns. In 2013, Concord became the first municipality in the United States to approve a ban on plastic water bottles; Sudbury became the second last year, with a law that takes effect this month.
Bans of plastic water bottles also have been undertaken at some college campuses and hospitals around the country, and some municipalities have banned them on public property.
Clark said the campaign for Concord’s plastic water bottle ban was controversial, but supporters there developed strategies to educate the public and eventually win majority support.
“The organizers in Concord helped us out, and we based this on what they had done,” Clark said. “That way we didn’t have to reinvent the wheel.”


Limited scope
The Great Barrington law won’t affect sales of bottled water in containers larger than 1 liter – or in smaller containers made from any substance other than PET plastic. It also won’t stop people from buying water in plastic bottles elsewhere and consuming it in Great Barrington. It doesn’t apply to sparkling or flavored water or any other beverages.

The new law also provides exemptions for the use of bottled water by emergency responders or during crises that affect the local public water supply.

The town expects to work out the practical details for enforcing the new law after it undergoes a review by the office of state Attorney General Maura Healey. Healey’s office is expected to sign off on the law this summer, given that the measure was modeled on the local law already approved in Concord.

But the new law might still be derailed if the petition drive for a revote succeeds.
Opponents of the plastic bottle ban contend the number of people who voted on it at last month’s town meeting did not represent an adequate share of the town’s total population. They are trying to collect at least 200 signatures to bring it up for another vote at a special town meeting this summer, according to John Tracy, the owner of Gorham & Norton Inc., a downtown package store and deli that has been collecting signatures from its customers on a copy of the petition for a revote.

“The ban is a nice idea in theory, but it won’t work,” Tracy said. “People will still be able to buy water in these plastic bottles a few miles away outside of Great Barrington.”

Edward Abrahams, a town selectman, said he strongly supports the basic goal of reducing or eliminating plastic packaging. But he voted no at the town meeting; he says the law is too narrow and will hurt local small businesses.

“The campaign did a really good job of presenting the problem, and it’s gotten people talking about it, which is important,” Abrahams said. “However, I think this is just a symbolic thing people can feel good about but doesn’t really get at the real problem. We have to move towards more meaningful and coordinated reductions of all unnecessary plastic packaging.”

Clark responded that although the new ban will not by itself solve the bigger problem of plastics, it is one manageable step that can be undertaken locally to help make a difference.

“In terms of the global situation, it may look like a drop in the bucket for one town to ban one size of plastic container for a specific product,” she said. “However, as plastic packaging restrictions are adopted in more communities, eventually there will be a bigger cumulative impact, which will significantly reduce the amount of plastic that is produced and used.”


Boon or burden?
More than 40 local businesses endorsed the plastic water bottle ban, including Guido’s Fresh Marketplace, the downtown coffee shop Fuel, The Prairie Whale restaurant, and Berkshire Bike & Board.

Supporters say the ban offers opportunities for businesses. Some have suggested, for example, that a business could have a water container and also sell compostable plastic cups to serve it in.

Anni Crofut, a local business owner who spoke out in favor of the ban, said she was sympathetic to the economic concerns of local merchants.

“But as an entrepreneur, I also know that it is possible to adapt to a change in product offerings, and/or to revamp one’s brand to accommodate the change,” she said. “Businesses do it all the time. We routinely problem-solve to strategically compensate for a lost revenue stream.”
But Tracy suggested it’s unfair to make businesses pay the cost for a benefit that’s mainly symbolic.

“Our business has been here for a century, and we’ve adapted to many changes over the years,” he said. “We’ll adapt to this too. But I don’t like being pushed to do it like this.”

He said that in the summer months, Gorham & Norton sells an average of 24 cases a week of water in plastic bottles.

“It will be hard to lose that revenue,” Tracy said. “I’m looking into alternatives like stainless steel, aluminum or Tetra [processed cardboard] single-serve boxes. However, these are more expensive and less desirable. We tried selling boxed water in the past, and customers didn’t like it.”

He predicts the ban will have a negative effect on tourism.
“It will make the town less tourist friendly,” Tracy said. “When I travel with my family, we prefer to drink bottled water rather than local tap water. In Great Barrington on a hot day, visiting mothers will come in looking for water for their kids, and they worry a glass bottle might get broken. And public drinking faucets or containers raise sanitary concerns.”

Clark, however, said worries about the purity of public tap water have been deliberately exaggerated by the bottled water industry. She said industry leaders have been quoted as acknowledging that they created the market for bottled water as a business strategy.
“These companies have manufactured a demand by making people needlessly unsure of our public water supplies,” she said.

Clark acknowledged that in some parts of the country, tap water may be of poor quality, or there may be critical situations where bottled water is necessary.

“A program like this might not work in some highly urbanized areas,” she said. “However, bottled water isn’t necessary in areas like Great Barrington and the Berkshires where the overall quality of tap water is excellent. And there are easy ways to filter water that are less expensive than buying bottled water.”

She also pointed out that even with the ban, people in Great Barrington would still be able to use bottled water.

Clark said that one of the goals of the overall initiative is to encourage other municipalities in the region to adopt similar bans of plastic water containers.

“We want to work out a template for how towns can do this and help them in the same way that the people in Concord helped us,” she said.