The plastic water bottle ban that recently passed at town meeting in Great Barrington is a well-intentioned effort that nonetheless will have little impact on consumer use or on the planet as a whole.
The concept of dealing with the horrendous mess and environmental consequences of excessive plastics in manufacturing is a laudable one. And it’s not only water bottles. Think back to the last time you bought an electronic gadget — and for some of you it might have been yesterday.
By the time you have unwrapped it and actually found what you bought, you will have thrown away all manner of plastic and related material: bubble wrap; transparent sheeting; styrofoam peanuts. My wife, for whatever reason, is buying tomatoes that come in a plastic container. Now they are now offering eggs in a plastic container. This is all terribly excessive.
Yet it does seem that the use of plastic is rooted in the idea of convenience — and therein lies the problem. It’s my observation that the popularity of bottled water has increased over the last couple of decades as the taste of municipal water has worsened — perhaps owing to increased levels of chlorination — and consumers are worried about tap water in general. Whether than concern is justified is another matter.
Some people have turned to bottled water because they perceive it as safer and better tasting. But more importantly, because it is convenient. Ultimately people vote with their feet or their pocketbook.
The amount of money people are spending on water for the sake of convenience speaks volumes. Unfortunately, the solution offered by proponents of the water bottle bylaw won’t be terribly effective.
Remembering to fill your reusable bottle with water and bringing it with you is just not practical for most people. If the canteens were really an alternative, they would already be in use by the majority of mobile water users. People already know they can do that but they’re not doing it in great numbers because they like the convenience of popping into Gorham & Norton or the Cumberland Farms and grabbing a bottle of Poland Spring or Berkshire Mountain Spring Water.
Perhaps the more important question is what we do with plastics after we use them. Putting a deposit on the water bottles is an idea that has met its time. And what about other plastic containers?
I spend a fair amount of time near the ocean and by far the most common plastic I see washing up is laundry detergent containers. And what about containers holding other beverages?
That brings us to another issue. Sales of bottled water have risen as consumption of sugary sodas has declined. The bottle-ban crowd would have us believe it’s because the soda companies conspired to get us hooked on bottled water because consumers were turning away from Pepsi and Mountain Dew.
I seriously doubt that but even if it’s true, so what? I’m thrilled that more people are drinking water. And from what I can tell, the bottle ban people seem to be fairly health-conscious. Why aren’t they, too, happy about all the water drinking?
The simple law of supply and demand will prevail. In order to get ahold of the plastics problem, we need to get to the source. If you tax toxic plastics, then the demand will go down. And the incentive to further develop and manufacture biodegradable plastics will rise.
So this Great Barrington ban barely makes a dent. I could pee in the ocean and no one would notice. If I peed in the bathtub, someone probably would. This is peeing in the ocean.
Educate. Don’t legislate.
Guido Penzini is a Berkshire County business owner.