Environmental activists want to ban the sale of popular water bottles

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By Sunday, Feb 25 News  24 Comments
Terry Cowgill
The Berkshire Women's Action Group Environment Committee is proposing a town bylaw to prohibit the sale of single-use drinking water bottles of 1 liter or less. From left are Wendy Kleinman, Marj Wexler, Jennifer Clark and Marcia Arland.

Great Barrington — If a group of activists get its way, Great Barrington will soon burnish its reputation as a plastic-unfriendly town.

A panel of the Berkshire Women’s Action Group and Indivisible Berkshires has gathered the necessary signatures to put a proposal before voters at the annual town meeting in May to ban the sale of drinking water in small, single-use plastic containers. The ban would extend to single-serve water bottles of 1 liter (34 ounces) or less. Click here to read the proposed bylaw.

The group’s Environment Committee took the initiative to draft a proposal for what it calls the “elimination” of the sale of the bottles. They gathered 30 signatures on a petition and presented it to the town clerk. They only needed 10.

Two of the committee members, Marj Wexler and Marcia Arland, are from Egremont and the other two, Wendy Kleinman and Jennifer Clark, hail from Great Barrington.

A prototype of the GB On Tap stainless steel reusable water bottle.

The panel sat down with the Edge last week to discuss the proposal. They say they are motivated by a variety of factors, including a desire to reduce waste and combat climate change. They have dubbed the proposal “GB On Tap” after a similarly named initiative, Concord On Tap, that was approved by voters in that eastern Massachusetts town in 2012.

“It’s about sustainability and lowering the use of fossil fuels,” Clark said of her group’s proposal.

“And because there is an alternative,” added Arland. “It’s good-tasting and very inexpensive.”

If it passes at town meeting, the GB On Tap program intends to provide additional drinking fountains and bottle refilling stations throughout town. In addition, it will help participating merchants and restaurants offer refillable water bottles for sale. The bottles will feature the movement’s logo, with the words “refill, refresh, renew” across the front.

A handy map will feature businesses that support the program by agreeing to become individual refill tap water stations for residents and tourists. The map will also highlight places where drinking fountains or bottle-refilling stations can be found. Clark says participating businesses will likely see an increase in foot traffic and customer volume.

The ban on plastic water bottles would not extend to larger containers such as the common 1- and 5-gallon jugs; nor the kinds of jugs you see at the office water cooler, for example.

“Individual bottles are the worst culprit,” said Kleinman.

Clark pointed to an array of research and data indicating:

  • As of 2006, it took the equivalent of 17 million barrels of oil to produce water bottles in the U.S.
  • Bottled water has a much greater carbon impact than tap water.
  • Plastic water bottles are full of harmful chemicals that can leach into the water.
  • Bottled water is not inspected as carefully or as often as tap water and there is an average of 10 recalls per year because of contamination.

As for why the group isn’t pushing for a wider ban on similar plastic bottles containing soda pop and sports drinks, for example, Clark said, “We’d love to go further but this is a start.”

It remains to be seen whether retailers will put up a fight if the plastic-bottle ban passes. Five years ago, Great Barrington joined what eventually became dozens of other communities across the state in banning the use of thin-film shopping bags with handles that so many supermarket and drug stores use to collect purchased goods for consumers to take home.

The ban on single-use thin plastic bags was approved by a clear majority of taxpayers at the annual town meeting in 2013 and survived a legal review by the state attorney general’s office the following year.

Officials from the town’s major retailers–Big Y and Price Chopper–privately told reporters they were not thrilled with the new law because it limited customer choices. Art Ames, then the general manager of the Berkshire Co-op Market, fully embraced the new law.

In 2016, Big Y began selling thicker reusable plastic bags that complied with the new bylaw but the company discontinued the practice after the selectmen complained that it ran afoul of the spirit of the bylaw.

The Edge reached out to Mona Golub, vice president for public relations and consumer services at Price Chopper for comment. She did not respond to a message over the weekend.

These plastic bottles of spring water stacked in the entrance of the Big Y in Great Barrington could not be sold legally if a proposed bylaw prohibiting their sale is passed by residents at the annual town meeting Monday, May 7. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Of the Great Barrington plastic bag ban four years ago, Golub told WAMC, “Price Chopper applauds not only the noble intent of this new legislation, but … Price Chopper certainly is prepared to play its role in helping the progressive town of Great Barrington transition itself forward.”

After passing its ban on plastic water bottles, the town of Concord also enacted a bag ban similar to the one in Great Barrington. 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 curtail his customers’ freedom of choice. The new law will take effect in July.

One Sudbury resident contacted by the Edge, environmental activist Nicholas Pernice, said he and many other town residents will scarcely notice the plastic water bottle ban.

“I won’t really notice it because, for years, I have worked out pretty regularly and use a Nalgene,” Pernice said, referring to a refillable, wide-mouth, nontoxic plastic water bottle.

Pernice said the Sudbury-Concord area, though suburban, is much like the Berkshires and is unusually environmentally conscious. Pernice is a member of Protect Sudbury, which is battling Eversource and the MBTA over the electric utility’s plan to place high voltage power lines along an inactive railroad corridor through the town of Sudbury and its conservation lands.

Sudbury is located near Concord’s Walden Pond, where transcendentalist writer Henry David Thoreau lived for two years in a cabin on its shore and was inspired to write his most famous work, “Walden.”

“I’m all for what they did,” Pernice said of his fellow Sudbury residents. “This is one step in the right direction for everybody, don’t you think?”

Reusable BPA-free plastic water bottles of the sort sold by Nalgene are also widely available.

The bottled water industry reacted swiftly to the Concord action, telling the Boston Globe that “Any efforts to discourage consumers from drinking water, whether tap water or bottled water, is not in the best interests of consumers.” One selectman who supported the ban nonetheless voted against it because she was concerned that the town would have to “spend scarce public resources on legal fees defending it.”

On the other hand, the Massachusetts Food Association, an industry trade group, said its members support reducing plastic waste but would prefer a statewide approach so that municipalities are all on a level playing field.

Interestingly, in light of the recent activism of students after this month’s mass killing at a Florida high school, the Sudbury proposal found its way onto the annual town meeting warrant because student members of the Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School Environmental Club petitioned to get it on.

Asked why, in this era of sugary soda pop and high-calorie energy drinks, her group would want to do anything to discourage the healthful consumption of water, Clark replied:

“Sparkling and flavored water are not limited for sale under this bylaw. Also, still water in containers larger than 1 liter is not limited. Some merchants may choose to dispense water through a filtering machine and sell that water at a lower price but with a higher margin of profit.”

Arland also pointed to a 2016 survey at Washington University in St. Louis showing that sales of bottled beverages of all kinds actually dropped 39 percent after 2009, when the university became the first in the nation to ban the sale of single-use plastic water bottles.

Clark, who traveled recently to Concord to meet with the activists involved in the plastic-bottle ban there, also reiterated several other relevant facts put out by Concord On Tap and the Sierra Club:

  • Because of poor recycling rates of about 25 percent, it costs U.S. cities and states at least $42 million a year to dispose of plastic water bottles.
  • It takes 3 liters of water and one-third of a liter of oil to produce 1 liter of bottled water.
  • Recent estimates are that 50 billion half-liter bottles of water (30 gallons per person) are consumed in the U.S. each year and that only about 25 percent of the empty bottles are recycled. Most of the discarded bottles end up in landfills.

This is to say nothing of the expense to consumers of the bottled water. According to Concord On Tap, Concord tap water costs .0007 cents a pint. Bottled water costs roughly 1 dollar a pint.

“For the price of a bottle of water, you can have 1,500 large glasses of Concord tap water,” the organization states on its website.

Ironically, the push to ban the plastic water bottles locally comes only a few months after the administration of President Donald Trump lifted a restriction on the sales of bottles in several popular national parks. That partial ban had been in effect since 2011 to encourage visitors to use tap water and refillables instead.

As was the case with the plastic bag ban, violators of the water-bottle bylaw would be fined and enforced by town manager Jennifer Tabakin or whomever she delegates the task to. See graphic below:

Clark said she has spoken to four of the five Great Barrington Selectboard members and has been encouraged by their reaction. She also made a presentation at a recent budget deliberation meeting of the selectboard and the Great Barrington Finance Committee.

None of the members of Clark’s panel had a clear sense of whether the measure would pass at town meeting. But they are planning a marketing campaign that might include emails, social media and other outreach.

“We might even be out on the streets,” Clark added.

See video below, “The Story of Bottled Water,” by the Story of Stuff Project: 

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24 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Marc says:

    Seriously don’t you people have better things to do? There are LOTS of REAL problems right here in our town. Drug use, most kids graduating high school and leaving, to not return. Why don’t you start courting big companies to set up shop here so we can employ people. Country curtains just closed. Lots of job losses there. Banning water bottles. Lol

    1. Shawn G. says:

      What are you doing to improve our town?

      1. Yourmom says:

        Shawn G.
        What are you doing to improve our town?. lol

    2. Laura says:

      Marc I am with you. We have so many other problems in town that need addressing besides bottled water. Just another group of bored housewives with nothing to do. Why don’t they push for deposits on the bottles then they can be recycled if people turn them in.

      1. Marc says:

        Thank you Laura. A voice of reason.

      2. Shawn G. says:

        What are you doing to improve our town?

      3. Jennifer Clark says:

        Laura, Deposits on plastic water bottles was on the 2013 state ballot – and it was turned down by the voters after the effective campaigning by the bottling industry. The five people on our committee are all working or retired women who care passionately about the injustices committed by the water bottling industry. Many reports all over the internet – take a look. Our oceans are polluted with the small pieces of poisonous plastic that wildlife and fish ingest. It’s all getting into our food chain via the fish. There are many ills in this world, but you have to pick one and work on it. This was our choice. Come to Simon’s Rock, April 15 3 pm for a showing of the excellent film, A Plastic Ocean. https://plasticoceans.org/venue/bard-college-at-simons-rock/

    3. waterboy says:

      Marc I am with you you inspire

  2. Paul says:

    Ban plastic straws instead. How about plastic lids too. Start with MacDonald’s. The alternatives this group is suggesting will not work. Focus on more pressing issues affecting our south county towns.

    1. Jennifer Clark says:

      Paul, please see my comment above to Laura. The array of “single use plastic” is huge (which includes straws), but we chose working on water bottles first. We have a plentiful, excellent replacement: tap water. Straws will be a focus at another point. Please see this excellent editorial on the subject: http://www.latimes.com/opinion/editorials/la-ed-plastic-plan-20180220-story.html You have to start somewhere, and starting at a local level is best. It will take a cumulative effort of many people and local campaigns.

  3. thewaterboy says:

    I have an idea instead of bottle water.

  4. thewaterboy says:

    Instead of bottle water since all the issues about gun control have a by-law that all guns have to by registered with the police department. Like automobiles. How many you have and what type.

  5. Michelle Loubert says:

    Regarding this initiative and water quality, there hadn’t been a conversation with Housatonic Water (James Mercer) about this company’s water supply; I confirmed this with Mr. Mercer. I requested this be done and was informed over the weekend that a conversation with Housatonic Water has now taken place. This is good news. However, in my opinion, this should have been done in the very initial phases of the initiative for thorough information. I applaud the effort but please make sure that a good portion of GB’s population up here in Housatonic and customers of Housatonic Water aren’t left out of the data. Thank you.

    1. Julia says:

      I would like to give a shout out to local business who already offer waste reduction options, Botanica Cafe has cotton hand towels, paper straws and water glasses! More business could make zero waste initiatives without it having to be the town law.

  6. Marlene says:

    Will this proposal increase drinking more GB municipal water? I am thinking yes. I find that the municipal water
    to have a very unnatural chemical taste. Has any consideration been given to what drinking more of those chemicals will do to our bodies? I don’t think that this is the same debate as plastic bags. There really wasn’t much of a downside to that proposal.

    1. Michelle Loubert says:

      Again, please include Housatonic Water in this discussion. Great Barrington is serviced by the Great Barrington Fire District which is quasi public and eligible for financial assistance (i.e. grants) for upgrades, etc. Housatonic Water (private) is not eligible for such helpful financial assistance. So when we talk water, consider both please.

    2. Steve Farina says:

      The “chemical taste” is chlorine. It is used in municipal water treatment to kill bacteria harmful to humans. Unfortunately, it’s use creates trichlorimines which create free radicals in the body, and releases THMs, which are carcinogenic. There are also adverse effects from breathing fumes from and soaking (showering) in chlorinated water. An additional risk from municipal water in many of the older homes found in the area is lead exposure due to old supply pipes which were soldered with lead based solder. Running the water for several minutes before putting any in your receptacle can mitigate the leaching effect of the lead solder (and lead in the brass faucets). Of course, many may consider this a “waste” of water.
      While bottled water is not regulated, and some merely use tap water, there are many options for various filtration methods use in the bottled water industry.
      As noted in the article, banning water only may well drive consumers looking for a quick and easy beverage to a less healthy alternative such as carbonated water, or soda products sweetened via a plethora of unhealthy methods.
      Placing deposit requirements on bottles has little effect on the recycling rate as can be seen at the many recycling centers whose dumpsters are filled with “deposit” cans and bottles – and those are recyclers who don’t care about nickels and dimes already. (See my response to the Edge article last year for a more expanded explanation of this).
      Who pays for the “watering stations” around town – taxpayers.
      If the water gets filtered at retailers, the consumer still has to pay, and the retailer has to service new equipment and discard old filters (more landfill trash).
      For these and other reasons, though I am sure well intentioned, this is a BAD idea to force on people.

    3. Jennifer Clark says:

      Hi Marlene, In years past, I found the water in my office building in town to be disagreeable. It may be the pipes there – but at home, I do not have that taste issue, even when unfiltered. Perhaps filtering the water with a Britta would be the best solution for you. Filtering may be an option for the public bottle refill stations we propose, depending on cost. Regarding your comment that ‘there wasn’t much of a downside” to the plastic bag bylaw, certainly some observed at the time the “downsides”, and in other towns where the ban is being considered, there is certainly opposition. Once it is implemented, we become habituated to a new routine of bringing our own stuff with us. This will be the same with water. Regarding your worries about the use of chloramine to treat the water (the water is already clean), I have not found a reliable source of information that demonstrates danger at the levels we use. See my note to Steve below – perhaps he can illuminate us.

  7. T Sant says:

    Just back from Sydney, not unusual to have water refill stations at the beach, walking trails, etc. Why not here?

  8. Art A says:

    Just one thing to consider from a retailer point of view. When the plastic bag ban was first introduced, it did not impact the retailer’s ability to sell goods and be competitive with other area retailers. This is quite different. There are many people who come here for recreational purposes during the season , and while we would like them all to have water bottles, many won’t. We have hikers coming through…rumor has it there are some trails in the area…who come off trail and use G.B. To stock up as well. Sure they have water bottles, but they have one and need to stock up. I’m wondering as well how significant lost revenues will be for all of the places that sell bottled water. It’s a fallacy to compare this to the plastic bag ban, though we all recognize it’s best for the environment. By the way, if you check with grocery stores now who still charge a dime for a paper bag, they’d likely tell you their expenses are way down and they actually likely financially profited with the plastic ban, but this would be a huge hit.

    As a consumer who lives around town, I’m all for it. Retailers should be up in arms about it though , and I can see why. And no..they won’t appreciably see their sales in permanent water bottles go up, unless they start carrying those really cheap $1 plastic reusable water bottles, and those are Not exactly friends to the environment. Offering water bottles with an organization logo is also awesome, but if it isn’t almost completely subsidized in cost, it becomes a bit elitist. We have many people who sometimes struggle to just to pay a buck for a water. Do we send them to their own water fountain to drink as much as they can because they can’t take it with them? Asking for a friend.

    If the town is serious, I’d think it would have to saturate the area with water stations first, figure out low cost alternatives for people who just don’t have a water bottle with them, and perhaps figure out some way to address the significant hit the retailers will take…many hundreds of thousands of dollars in sales…at least until more area towns or the state adopts similar regulations. I think it can be done, but it is a bit of a quagmire.


    I dunno.

    1. Joseph Method says:

      These are really good points. I never buy small water bottles so I don’t have a good sense of the impact on people who use them. I agree that our main concern should be that it doesn’t become another impediment (either real or perceived) for poor people living in South County.

  9. DB says:

    How about a deposit on ALL bottled drinks? I never understood why water was not included anyway.
    If you drink it from a glass or plastic bottle , it should have a deposit and get recycled. Whether it is plain, sparkly, flavored, water, juice, whatever, it should be recycled.

    1. Jennifer Clark says:

      Hi DB, You’re right. We should have a redeemable deposit on all these bottles. However, when the proposal to place deposits on plastic water bottles was on the 2013 state ballot, it was turned down by the voters after the very effective campaigning by the bottling industry. I think the vote FOR was only 27% statewide. It was much higher here in the Berkshires.

  10. Jennifer Clark says:

    Hi DB, You’re right. We should have a redeemable deposit on all these bottles. However, when the proposal to place deposits on plastic water bottles was on the 2013 state ballot, it was turned down by the voters after the very effective campaigning by the bottling industry. I think the vote FOR was only 27% statewide. It was much higher here in the Berkshires.

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