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The many reasons the plastic bottle bylaw is essential

Rome was not built in a day. Banning the sale of single-use plastic bottles is a start. It builds the momentum begun by Concord, and creates a model for other towns to emulate.

To the Editor:

Greetings to readers and the Editor of the Berkshire Edge:

Recently, many arguments against the recently passed bylaw to eliminate the sale of single-use PET water bottles in Great Barrington (set to take effect May 1, 2019) have been circulating on The Edge and on Facebook. We, as members of the Environment Committee of the Berkshire Women’s Action Group responsible for proposing the bylaw, would like to offer clarification of certain recurring assertions made by those opposed. We hope this will also help to educate the general public about this important legislation.

  1. Assertion: This bylaw is the wrong approach. Better to focus on education, voluntary participation and even redemption fees to encourage more RECYCLING.

Our response: We are avid recyclers, but education about the U.S. recycling industry has stripped us of our illusions.

A well-established rule in waste management is the hierarchy of preferred solutions: 1. Reduce (most preferred) 2. Reuse 3 Recycle (least preferred). The reason recycling comes last is that it is highly inefficient. According to a 2016 EPA report, only 28.4 percent of PET plastic bottles are recycled. To make matters worse, China – the largest purchaser of US raw recyclables – recently decided, as part of their “Green Fence” policy, to refuse a large portion of US recyclables. As a result, the market has softened, and even fewer recyclables are recycled.

Furthermore, any energy savings from recycling does NOT offset the energy consumed by the original manufacturing process of PET plastics and their transportation –both of which require immense amounts of crude oil. Similarly, the recycling process doesn’t offset the pollution produced in the original production process.

If you still think recycling is the answer and believe slapping a surcharge on plastic will encourage collection and recycling, remember that we, as MA voters in 2014, shot down a ballot proposal to do just this. The water bottling industry made their case, and the voters fell for it.

Finally, recycling enables an attitude of entitled consumerism and creates a false sense of security. People naively believe it’s fine to purchase and use environmentally harmful products such as bottled water because they’ll make up for it by recycling. But the real solution is to stop the trash stream at the source.

  1. Assertion: This ban will place an undue burden on retailers.

Our response: We are extremely concerned about small merchants who might suffer from this change in tack. To this end, we have designed an option that could easily be more profitable, giving them a return on their investment within a year. It is this: merchants would install filtered water dispensers in their stores. The customer would purchase a compostable cup and lid from the merchant. Merchants could use a composting service, Natural Upcycling, which will pick up compostable “plastics” for their industrial composting facility. This is a reputable firm, and a number of restaurants in town use them for food scrap pick up now.

Our design can extend to multiple restaurants that would coordinate by purchasing the same compostable cup. Natural Upcycling’s collection bins would then be stationed around town with stand-out graphics requesting deposits of this exact cup. This design would have the least environmental impact. (Multiple cups would work too, but this may be a simpler process, and easier for consumers to understand.)

We have promoted this option to a number of retailers in town, and we would be excited to share this effort with any merchant needing help putting this together. Please contact us for more information.

We will suggest excellent sources for inexpensive stainless steel bottles to merchants who can brand these bottles with their own logo or use our “GB on Tap” version. Again, another marketing opportunity.

Regarding Berkshire Mountain Spring Water – yes, they are a better alternative to Dasani and Poland Spring etc., but they are not a better alternative to the low carbon-footprint of filtered tap water. BMS does sell water in bulk in the form of bubblers, which is better than single-use bottles. And they now sell tap water filtration systems – likely because they see the writing on the wall, that this is the most efficient and sustainable method for the delivery of water. This is the direction we should encourage in our culture.

  1. Assertion: Water will not be available for sale anywhere.

Our response:The GB on Tap program will make it possible for anyone to ask for a refill of their bottle at participating merchants, like Fuel. If they do not have a bottle, they can buy a compostable cup (as outlined above) and get it filled by certain merchants. If they instead need a closed container, merchants are still allowed to sell water in cartons and glass bottles, and they can also sell it in plastic bottles larger than 1 liter. There will be plenty of options for buying water downtown.

  1. Assertion: The Environment Committee of the Berkshire Women’s Action Group, which brought this bylaw to the table, has engaged in a “masterful marketing effort to sway the emotions of the crowd.”

Our response: We are a small, committed group of volunteers who have dedicatedmany months to hard work, careful research, and transparent and collaborative talks with merchants, businesses, local organizations, and people in town government to come up with a carefully crafted bylaw that addresses our deep concern for the shocking overconsumption of plastic in our community. In the effort to make the process one of community building and open discourse, a committee member contacted every one of our business supporters in person. For the presentation of the bylaw to the public, we naturally used our wide-ranging skills (graphic design, writing, editing, sales and scientific careers) so that our presentation was clear, respectful, responsible and persuasive.

  1. Assertion: The Town Meeting was unfairly skewed to represent those in favor of the bylaw because only 5 people in line (1 against, 4 in favor) were allowed to present before the town moderator ended public comment. Further, the high school students who presented were engaged in order to manipulate the sympathies of the crowd.

Our response: Dan Bailly, a Selectboard member, commented on The Edge that the decision to end the comment period was purely practical, related to time limitations and the lateness of the meeting, and had nothing to do with favoring one argument over another. Town meetings are a beast we all should be familiar with by now: so many voices, not enough time. Getting to speak requires a bit of luck, which is why both sides need to educate the public and advocate for their positions in the weeks leading up to the meeting. There was plenty of press, time, and opportunity to do so. To question Town Meeting protocol after the fact, rather than accepting personal responsibility, erodes our hard-won – albeit imperfect – Town Meeting process.

The high school students who delivered the PowerPoint presentation feel a strong concern for their future in a world riddled with plastics. We share a commitment to this unifying issue. To assert that they were ‘used’ to elicit sympathies insults both their fierce activism and our collaboration.

  1. Assertion: Not all of the 40 organizations and businesses that endorsed this bylaw are local.

Our response: Thirty-three are exclusively local businesses. Two are both local and national businesses (TD Bank and Aubuchon Hardware). Great Barrington falls within the purview of the five environmental organizations (Berkshire Environmental Action Team, Housatonic River Keeper, Housatonic Valley Association, Appalachian Trail Conservancy and Sierra Club).

  1. Assertion: Of the “40 local businesses” that endorsed the bylaw, several are owned by one person.

Our response: There is only one owner on the list of endorsers who owns twobusinesses represented on our list, and that individual definitively gave his support and encouraged us to list both of his businesses as endorsers of the bylaw.

  1. Assertion: Most of the 40 businesses don’t even sell water.

Our response: Of the 40 supporters, 6 sell bottled water, 8 serve tap water. Our point in listing the 26 remaining supporters was that they have an important presence and influence in this town and are significant members of our community. Their voices are as important as our individual voices as citizens.

  1. Assertion: This bylaw is dividing our community.

Our response: Let’s look at Concord, Massachusetts. Their water-bottle bylaw, passed in 2013, initially met the kind of resistance we are now seeing in Great Barrington. Ultimately, however, the bylaw has served to bring the community together in a collective effort that has made the town a beacon for progressive and effective environmental action. This action is not just symbolic. Concord’s tonnage of the non-paper stream of their dual-stream recycling program saw a reduction from 602 tons in 2012 to 579 tons in 2013.  Their Board of Health was the designated enforcement agency, and their Public Health Director has not had to make any adjustments in staffing. As one Concord resident said “We are all happy and hydrated.”

Beyond looking at precedent, we strongly believe that such a town-wide effort to stem the tide of plastic consumption will further build a sense of community in our town. This is a global issue now, and in coming together to address it in this way, we are acknowledging our collective commitment to do the right thing.

  1. Assertion: Why not start with straws? How about soda bottles or other plastic containers? Why water bottles?

Our response: Rome was not built in a day. Banning the sale of single-use plastic bottles is a start. It builds the momentum begun by Concord, and creates a model for other towns to emulate. Convenience water is an $8 billion industry in the U.S., where more than 1 billion plastic water bottles are shipped annually. This market will diminish only when demand is reduced. Tap water is an easy substitute for bottled water; our reliance on industrial water weakens our local public water system that brings safe, reliable water to everyone.

In his article discussing the book ‘Water Consciousness,’ Kelle Louaillier, executive director of Corporate Accountability International, described bottled water as a “boutique industry” that has grown “into a $100- billion international juggernaut that is threatening public control over humanity’s most vital resource. As in much of the industrialized world, strong public water systems have been a cornerstone of national prosperity in the United States. These systems have generally been managed by local governments that are accountable to the public through the democratic process…assuring access to safe and healthy drinking water for almost all Americans regardless of their means. It was unthinkable just three decades ago that a person would pay $1.50 for what they could have free at a water fountain or for virtually nothing at the tap. Drinking water was, simply, a public trust and a basic human right.” (Louaillier, in Water Consciousness, pp. 59–60).

We enthusiastically encourage anyone who feels that a different ‘plastic product’ should have been targeted to get involved and introduce a new bylaw next year.

In conclusion we wish to add one more thought. Continued education is a must. To that end, we will be designing and distributing materials for merchants and citizens that will concisely illustrate the reasoning and the facts behind our efforts to deal with this growing plastic pollution crisis. We already suggest alternative forms of packaging of our groceries and take-out meals with stores and merchants. If Great Barrington can market and play up the town’s leadership in this arena of environmental activism, we will benefit from being seen as a town that walks its talk and looks ahead to the future that our children will inherit. In practice, the bylaw’s effect will send an educational message to visitors and tourists about our commitment to environmental stewardship and our willingness to implement actual rather than purely symbolic change.

If anyone has specific questions for the Environment Committee of the Berkshire Women’s Action Group, please direct them to Jennifer Clark, beginner100@gmail.com.

The Environment Committee of the Berkshire Women’s Action Group

Marj Wexler, Marcia Arland, Wendy Kleinman, Anni Crofut, Jennifer Clark

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