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David Scribner
Voters at the Great Barrington annual town meeting on May 7 lift yellow cards to indicate their support for a ban on single-use plastic water bottles. The measure passed.

Cadre of residents, merchants look to repeal plastic water bottle ban

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By Friday, May 25, 2018 News 19

Great Barrington — A controversial environmental measure enacted earlier this month at the annual town meeting might be rescinded if opponents get their way.

Late in the evening during the May 7 annual town meeting, voters approved by a margin of approximately 2-1 a measure that effectively bans the sale of single-use plastic noncarbonated water bottles of 1 liter in size or less within the town limits of Great Barrington. The new bylaw will take effect Wednesday, May 1, 2019.

The approval from residents followed a lengthy and impassioned appeal from three Monument Mountain Regional High School students. They pointed to an array of research and data indicating the environmental issues associated with plastic in general and the single-use water bottles in particular because of the chronic infiltration of microplastic debris into the food chain.

Monument students Carly Terranova, Grace Phair and Olivia Jaffe captured the audience’s attention while speaking in support of the plastic bottle ban at Great Barrington’s town meeting May 7. Photo: David Scribner

Even among its supporters, the approval of the initiative was far from certain but, as attendees watched the students and listened to almost a dozen other people speak in favor of it, the momentum of the measure built and it passed by acclamation.

While a lengthy list of businesses and other organizations in town said they supported the new bylaw, it nonetheless did not sit did well with a number of other merchants who felt the ban would harm their businesses or who objected on the grounds of legislative overreach. 

Gorham & Norton owner John Tracy in the store office, photobombed by a goofy likeness of his wife Diane. Photo courtesy Gorham & Norton

After an article appeared in the Edge in February announcing the work of an independent committee that had been formed to draft a proposed bylaw, there was significant pushback.

John and Diane Tracy, who own Gorham & Norton, the downtown grocery and liquor store, said the loss of bottled water would affect their bottom line—they sell 30 cases of Poland Spring a week during the summer.

The Tracys are hosting a petition, though Diane Tracy told the Edge they are not asking customers to sign it. If customers ask for the petition, the Tracys will present it to them for signing.

So who is the force behind the repeal effort? Not a merchant but just a regular resident of Great Barrington who is bothered by the new law, Laura Keefner wrote a letter to the editor of The Edge that was published today. She argued instead for increased recycling efforts.

In an Edge interview, Keefner said she did not attend the annual town meeting this year, in part because she was not aware of the proposed bylaw until a couple of days before the meeting. She assumed it would not pass and was later shocked to learn that it had. Keefner considered trying to get it repealed next year, but ultimately decided she couldn’t wait that long.

“My original thought was I would wait until next year’s [annual town meeting] but stores would already have already taken steps to comply,” she said.

Laura Keefner. Photo courtesy Laura Keefner

In addition, Keefner said — and this reporter can confirm — there were far fewer people at the town meeting near the end when the plastic water bottle ban was presented and voted upon. She also thinks that bylaw should have been subject to a secret ballot rather than a voice vote, especially given the fact that students were advocating for it. She likened it to a show of hands for the passage of a school budget.

“The minute you stand up to say something against kids, you are accused of not supporting kids,” said Keefner, adding that she would have preferred that the measure have been on the ballot for a town election instead.

So what are the logistics attached to petitioning for a special town meeting? Town clerk Marie Ryan told The Edge the pertinent section of Massachusetts General Law stipulates that the petition must have the certified signatures of 200 registered voters or 20 percent of the total number of registered voters of the town, whichever number is less. The special town meeting must be held no later than 45 days after the selectboard receives the request.

As of this month’s annual town elections, Great Barrington had 4,574 registered voters. Twenty percent of that would be 914, so the petition organizers only need 200 signatures.

As of Friday morning, Keefner did not know the number of voters who had signed the petitions. In addition to the aforementioned Gorham & Norton, Keefner said several businesses agreed to host petitions, including Carr Hardware, the VFW, Plaza Package, Aberdale’s and Eagle Shoe & Boot.

In advance of the annual town meeting, at least 40 businesses and organizations had signed off on the plastic water bottle ban. There were some high-profile businesses on the list, including Guido’s, Prairie Whale, Domaney’s and SoCo. Relatively late in the game, the Berkshire Co-op Market came on board. The endorsement by those organizations was widely seen as very helpful to the passage of the bylaw.

Robin Helfand. Photo courtesy National Retail Federation.

But there are other merchants in town not hosting petitions who are nonetheless wary of the new bylaw. Robin Helfand, who owns Robin’s Candy, is one such merchant.

“We strongly support all initiatives to reduce the use of products not environmentally friendly,” said Helfand, a Sheffield resident. “However, we’re equally committed to voluntary efforts to do so.”

Helfand insisted that her position on the issue “has nothing to do with being a merchant. I have lived in countries with very restrictive regulatory environments,” she said, citing Germany as one example. “My hope is that this chapter has made all of us hypervigilant about recycling efforts with the expectation that we will not ask for unnecessary packaging and that we will bring our own bags — that kind of thing.”

Richard Stanley, who owns the Triplex Cinema and the Barrington House, told The Edge he enthusiastically supports the repeal effort and thinks the solution is better education about plastics in general.

Of the committee that advocated for the ban, Stanley said: “If this group is looking to make a difference, they need a different approach. Also they need to deal with the major offiender of the use of plastics, which is soft drinks.”

Stanley added that no one has approached him about hosting a petition at the cinema but, if they do, “I’m happy to support that effort.”

And it’s not only merchants who have concerns about new bylaw. For a window into the thought of the rank-and-file, see a discussion thread on the Great Barrington Community Board Facebook page.

Contacted by The Edge today, members of the Environment Committee of the Berkshire Women’s Action Group and Indivisible Berkshires, the panel that had sponsored the successful bylaw, were unaware of the repeal effort.

Berkshire Women’s Action Group Environment Committee members (from left) Wendy Kleinman, Marj Wexler, Jennifer Clark and Marcia Arland proposed the town bylaw to prohibit the sale of single-use drinking water bottles of 1 liter or less. Photo: Terry Cowgill

“The bill passed easily. We presented the information by the book and the vote was in clear favor for the ban,” said committee member Wendy Kleinman of Great Barrington. “Since the bill will not go into effect until 2019, [with] enough time for the necessary adjustments, it seems unreasonable to me to want to repeal it.”

“The merchants certainly have the right to challenge the bylaw,” added committee member Marcia Arland, an Egremont resident. “And we would certainly work toward protecting the bylaw as passed by large majority on May 7.”

Single-use plastic water bottles for sales in Great Barrington. Photo: David Scribner

Since Great Barrington is only the third municipality in the nation to enact a plastic water bottle ban (the other two are also in Massachusetts), there is not much in the way of precedent to examine. A similar bylaw was approved by voters in the eastern Massachusetts town of Concord in 2012.

Last year, a similar bottle initiative passed in nearby Sudbury and it even survived a subsequent repeal attempt initiated by the owner of a coffee house who insisted the water bottle ban would hurt his bottom line and trample on his customers’ freedom of choice.

As was the case with the Great Barrington effort, students played a key role in Sudbury. The Environmental Club at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School proposed the bylaw at the annual town meeting last year, and defended it during the special town meeting called to repeal it in October. 

Keefner said she wanted to obtain more than 200 signatures “just to be on the safe side,” because, invariably in any petitioning effort, there are challenges and some signatures are disqualified on technicalities. She declined to predict when the petition would be ready but was confident that the vote at a special town meeting would be much closer than it was earlier this month.

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19 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Joseph Method says:

    It’s annoying that these store owners couldn’t be bothered to come to the actual meeting and speak out when they had the chance. Obviously they have the right to organize politically but at town meeting it would have been just their presence and words, like everyone else. Now they get to use their stores to push their cause, which feels a little bit like “everybody has freedom of speech; some people just have more of it”. Again: totally within their rights; it’s just annoying.

    1. Steve Farina says:

      Good morning Joseph, first off John and Diane were at the ATM, secondly, not everyone was given the opportunity to speak.

      1. Joseph Method says:

        That’s fair. I don’t know who was or wasn’t there, except for Laura Keefner, who wasn’t there. My point is that the time to influence people was before the vote was taken. I’m inclined to agree that calling the vote was a mistake, especially if it’s going to be used to justify a special meeting. But at the time the speeches seemed so lopsidedly in support.

  2. Bobby Houston says:

    Wow, a lot of knocks on the ATM process here. Not worth attending- Keefner. Ran too long- Cowgill. Incomplete – Farina. Overly influenced by kids- Keefner. Anybody care to say it was rigged?

    1. Steve Farina says:

      Hey Bobby, just between you and me… I heard there is a Russian steel magnate who has ties to reusable stainless steel containers and may have used fake news to influence the outcome…LMAO

  3. Lauren says:

    What I don’t understand is why these store owners don’t seem to be willing to see this as an opportunity rather than a profit loss. Instead of buying all those plastic bottles (since that’s what they’re buying, not the water) they might consider investing in water bottle filling systems and charging for the water. They could even get reuseable bottles with their shop logos on them to sell. If they don’t want to go that far, just get a cooler from our local bottled water folks (Berkshire Mountain Spring) and charge for that along with a bottle with the store logo on it. Please stop whining and get creative! I think the good will would be much more profitable than the resistance.

  4. Paul Benjou says:

    While I applaud the students concern and move to make the ban happen, I believe we are addressing the symptoms and not the cure. We can take action to prevent the symptom but that will never alleviate the problem unless there is a cure. And there is. Instead of focusing efforts that have “side effects”, petition the bottlers to move to alternatives. Hemp plastic is totally bio friendly. I’d rather pay a few cents more per use knowing that if it’s tossed It will not hurt the environment.
    Take action on a larger platform that only has bottlers as the resistance and will impact ALL plastic bottles instead of half a town’s residents fighting over banning water bottles. Focus on the bottlers people!

  5. Mary Ellen Foster says:

    What did we ever do before we could buy water in plastic bottles? OMG, carry a thermos? Good grief! Why is the effort to protect our environment so offensive? Am I the only one who remembers when patrons were allowed to smoke in restaurants and in the movie theatre? When the push to ban second hand smoke met the same obstacles as banning single use bottled water and yet look how that turned out. Well, we have to start someplace. Start small and let the snowball roll. Why not here in Great Barrington? Kudos to the students who spoke at the Annual Town Meeting. Keep up the good work.

    1. Cynthia LaPier says:

      Mary, I too have been reminded of the smoking ban in GB. I remember folks moaning that all town bars and the bowling alley were going to go out of business if cigarette smoking was banned. It has been 18 years since that town ordinance and no one lost their business. Over the last couple of decades the entire nation has made this shift. The CDC statistics for teenage smoking show a high in 1995 of almost 40% of teens reporting smoking decreasing to 16% in 2014. You can’t argue with that. Change is gradual, we adapt. Positive outcomes lie ahead for the reduction of single use plastic, as well.

      1. Steve Farina says:

        Banning smoking is not the same thing as telling retailers that they cannot sell a product. Retailers in GB were told they cannot sell cigarettesome to anyone under age 21, so now our 18 – 21 year old adults who wish to smoke drive to Sheffield or surrounding towns to buy cigarettes.
        There are many problems with this ban, and it does not even come close to addressing the issue of the use of plastics in society. It will not likely snowball into a bigger plastic ban and it sets a dangerous precedent in terms of utilizing town bylaws to regulate retail product offerings.
        The color yellow has been shown to evoke positive and happy feelings, should we mandate that only yellow shirts and blouses be sold in GB, since we want the world to be a happier place?

      2. Cynthia LaPier says:

        Hi Steve,
        The 18 year old smoking ban was not about underage smokers. It was about businesses in town no longer being able to allow smoking on premises by anyone of any age, remember?
        Folks were sure that without smoking, these businesses were going to go under. No one could imagine a successful bar without cigarette smoking being permitted.
        Almost two decades later, and Great Barrington watering holes survived, the entire nation went the same route, and today, teenage smoking has decreased enormously, and adult smoking has decreased by 15%.
        A small, courageous change that some people were frightened of and angry about, ended up being part of a national tidal wave that has had very positive results.
        The same is happening with single use plastic water bottles and all plastic packaging in our country and around the world. We can be in the vanguard as one of currently 3 municipalities in the entire country to implement a ban, or we can catch up later. Either way, it’s happening.

      3. John says:

        Smoking and plastic water bottles are not the same thing at all.
        The plastic water bottle ban while nobel in intent, is a complete failure in terms of meeting the intended and meaningful consequence. A mere feelgood measure which simply creates illusion and wastes tax dollars.
        Education is the answer, not frivolous legislation.

      4. Cynthia LaPier says:

        Hi John, that’s right they are different. The connection I am drawing is the way that in both cases some people were/are convinced that a town ordinance forbidding in one case an activity and in the other a product, would be a financial disaster for local businesses. As we saw, local bars and restaurants continued to thrive. The same will be true post single serving water bottle ban. As others have posted, there are many creative ways to continue to sell smaller amounts of water. One of my favorites is stores supporting a local business (instead of the Coca Cola, Nestle companies ) and buying the large water cooler bottles from Berkshire Mountain Spring Water to use for fill ups at a price, as well as selling inexpensive reusable water bottles alongside with the business’s logo, or a GB logo.

  6. Stephen Moore says:

    People opposed to the ban say there should be increased recycling efforts. The statistics on how much recyclable material actually gets recycled is pretty dismal. The environmental point of this ban is to keep from producing more plastics, not making more because they can be “recycled.” Recycling is not a panacea for dealing with hazardous materials that needn’t be produced in the first place. AND, the availability of these small bottles of water induces people to not take care of this on a personal level. My wife and I have used essentially the same dozen or so glass bottles (from Nantucket Nectar drinks, keep to one brand so the caps are interchangable) for years and years. Nothing changes if nothing changes.

  7. Mary Ellen Foster says:

    “Single-use plastics: New EU rules to reduce marine litter: Brussels, 28 May 2018
    With the amount of harmful plastic litter in oceans and seas growing ever greater, the European Commission is proposing new EU-wide rules to target the 10 single-use plastic products most often found on Europe’s beaches and seas, as well as lost and abandoned fishing gear. “

    “UN declares war on ocean plastic.
    • UN Environment launches major global #CleanSeas campaign to end marine litter
    • More than 8 million tons of plastic leaks into the ocean each year – equal to dumping a garbage truck of plastic every minute
    UN Environment launched today an unprecedented global campaign to eliminate major sources of marine litter: microplastics in cosmetics and the excessive, wasteful usage of single-use plastic by the year 2022.”

  8. RichS says:

    How are high school students allowed to speak on a proposed law at a town meeting? shouldn’t a town meeting be only for taxpayers of voting age? These kids do not pay property taxes and are clearly not of voting age. it is a slippery slope when you start to tell retailers what products can and cannot be sold. a simpler solution would be free choice, if the businesses who backed the bylaw do not want to sell bottled water then they should not sell it, on the other hand if a business wants to sell it they should be able to. that is what true freedom is letting people decide for themselves.

  9. Tom Warner says:

    Once a law is enacted the process to change that law is the same process it became law in the first place.
    Learn how a our laws are made and if you are so concerned about a law go to the annual town meeting
    before it becomes a law not after! Maybe this will get more people engaged in issues that concern us. Now if
    we don’t like the process that would be an entirely different issue. Myself , I would rather see issues on a ballot and voted on
    just like a regular election. You go to the polling station and you vote. Now hows that for idea for a petition!
    Most Sincerely, Tom Warner. Great Barrington, Massachusetts.

    1. Joseph Method says:

      I would vote for that petition. Maybe town meeting could just be used for discussion.

    2. Mary Ellen Foster says:

      Good idea, Tom. I’ll second that!

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