THE REST OF THE STORY: On plastics, people vote with their feet

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By Tuesday, Jun 5 Viewpoints  20 Comments

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.


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20 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Noah Meyerowitz says:

    Guido, change must start somewhere, and I’m proud of our town and community for taking the initiative to enact this important step toward sustainability. We’re on the leading edge of a new trend to ban single-use plastics. Entire countries have announced national bans, one of them India, who vows to ban all single-use plastics by 2022. The trouble with the way of thinking in your example of an individual “peeing in the ocean” is this: if everyone believed they could pee in the ocean and it wouldn’t matter, might you be concerned that the urine to water ratio would increase rather rapidly? (Yikes!)
    As far as adequate and healthy hydration, it’s important to note that the sale of plastic water bottles 1 liter and up is still permitted under this ban. So, simply, when folks buy water, they’ll get slightly larger bottles, a better value, and as a bonus, maybe even an increased water intake! Any progress is good progress, no matter how small you deem its effect to be.

  2. Michael Mah says:

    I agree to educate. Because some people are incredible stupid and ignorant.

    In the meantime, legislate. Because left to their own devices, people will likely be incredibly stupid and ignorant. We are out of time. #stopsucking #stopsingleuse

    Great link here for the enlightened.
    https://myplasticfreelife.com/plasticfreeguide/

    1. Richard Allen says:

      People who disagree with you are not stupid and ignorant. Listen, don’t lecture.

      1. Carl Stewart says:

        Mr Allen

        1. Some people who disagree are stupid and ignorant. You probably meant to say that simply disagreeing with another opinion is not necessarily evidence of stupidity and ignorance.

        2. You should follow your own advice about not lecturing. It is exactly what you did .

  3. Cindy says:

    Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
    ― Margaret Mead
    Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
    ― Nelson Mandela
    The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.”
    ― Albert Einstein

  4. Donna Jacobs says:

    This is an excellent article, raising awareness that the problem goes way beyond banning single use water bottles . I’d like to comment on the point of “convenience,” though.
    I do use a “canteen” and find it more convenient than a collection of flimsy plastic bottles to use throughout the day. The water sold in small bottles costs more to keep me hydrated than gasoline to fuel the car. I’m sure there are others who find supplying their own water convenient and cost effective.

    1. robbin says:

      i think the author is overlooking the role played by our surroundings in determining what feels convenient, and what seems “practical for most people.”
      of course, the reason that relatively few of us can be bothered to grab a canteen or other refillable container is BECAUSE there’s so often a bottle of water available for a buck or two close at hand. take those away and throw in a few filling stations, and suddenly a canteen seems pretty darn convenient and very practical indeed.

  5. Cynthia LaPier says:

    There was a very encouraging post on the Great Barrington Community Board on Facebook yesterday. Someone posted photos of a free reusable water bottle filling station in CT. In the comments below folks chimed in that these are already in use in our communities – at Berkshire South Community Center, Monument Mountain Regional High School, Mt.Everett, the outlets in Lee, and more on the way – local GB business, SRUTI is installing one that they said will pay itself off in 6 months.
    This movement toward reducing plastic use beginning with single serving plastic water bottles has lots of momentum. It’s happening. Our children are growing up in school with an awareness of the urgent need to reduce plastic use, they have increasing access to these water dispensers, this is going to be easy for them. For older folks like me, we can remember a time when people giggled at the idea of selling water and we used canteens, thermoses, water fountains and asked for glasses of water. Those generations in between will have the hardest adjustment, but they’ll make it!
    Instead of spending time and money trying to repeal legislation, it seems like time to move forward and put our energies towards a combination of education and legislation.

  6. robbin says:

    educate. this article represents some real insight into the scope of our plastics problem and the role of convenience in that problem. thank you for writing about it, for joining the conversation, for encouraging me and no doubt others to think deeper about all of this.

    I urge everyone who is thinking about our plastics problem — reading about it, writing about it, caring about it — to take a moment to honestly ask themselves if they would have bothered to do so without this bottle ban. i’m no fan of plastic in the ocean myself, but this the passing of this legislation is prompting me to try to do better in many ways, even as it will force me to do better in one particular way.

  7. Jennifer Clark says:

    These facts are important to consider:

    1 This bylaw was conceived of as a step toward a larger regional approach. We have no county government. We have no choice but to approach this town by town. “Effective” for this bylaw means, essentially, joining and being part of a growing movement. See this article about India’s new goals: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/jun/05/india-will-abolish-all-single-use-plastic-by-2022-vows-narendra-modi

    2 Water bottles are the target of this first effort as there is an easy substitute: tap water. While some areas of the country do have issues about water quality, worry about tap water is primarily created by the bottled water industry itself. We love this quotation: “When we’re done, tap water will be relegated to showers and washing dishes.” – Susan Wellington, former VP of Marketing for Pepsi-owned Gatorade

    3 The habit of relying on picking up water in a convenience store is…a HABIT. Requesting or educating people to bring their own container will work sometimes, but not adequately. The message needs to be more forceful to get through to a habituated public. We admire the point made earlier in this thread from Robbin – that removing the cheap plastic water and instead providing easily accessible water in town will help people remember to bring that bottle or canteen.

    4 The water vs. sugary drinks debate: Yes, we agree that water is essential, and far preferable to the alternatives. Water packaged in plastic is not the best solution however. Water drinkers will stick with water and not be deterred by sugary alternatives if water is readily available, as one study has shown at Washington University. GB on Tap is catalyzing the purchase, installation, and maintenance of bottle refill stations around town, and we are organizing a system to enable bottle or cup filling in restaurants and stores wishing to participate.

    5 The manufacture of compostable plastics is happening, but there are few industrial composting services nationwide. We are fortunate to have one nearby in New York State that is expanding into the Berkshire market. Also, these plastics, when mistakenly thrown into a recycling bin with petroleum-based plastics, create havoc in the regular recycling stream. Our country subsidizes the oil industry with the effect that there is less incentive for us to innovate. See his link: https://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2017/10/6/16428458/us-energy-subsidies Europe and elsewhere have a number of great innovations happening, but most if not all are in development.

    I am a co-creator of this bylaw. Please email me if any questions or comments you’d like to address privately. Beginner100@gmail.com

  8. Joseph Method says:

    This isn’t really a coherent argument. “People already know they can [BYO water] but they’re not doing it in great numbers because they like the convenience of popping into [stores]” But education and a tax on plastic will get them to stop doing it?. Unless you’re talking about a lot of education or a lot of tax (which isn’t going to happen, because look at what happens when you try to ban *one* plastic item), this argument is self-refuting. The problem is that our built environment encourages us to behave in certain ways, and it’s incredibly hard to break off from those ways on an individual basis.

  9. Steve Farina says:

    The real story (WARNING: this article contains real information. Supporters of the ban are going to hate this):

    https://aminewswire.com/stories/510996198-town-that-banned-bottled-water-now-can-t-get-enough-of-it

    “There has been somewhat of a reduction since that time, but in reality it’s not possible to say it’s 100 percent attributable to the bottle ban,” Concord Environmental Services Program Director Rod Robison said of the bottle ban’s effect on the town’s volume of recyclables.
    The slight recent reduction in volume could be from metal cans, glass bottles or other non-plastic items, Robison said. “The tonnage isn’t just plastics, it’s everything.” Measuring whether the bottle ban has reduced the volume of plastic is impossible, he said.

    In fact, if you read the annual State reports since 2013, the Town of Concord has had comingled numbers go up and down, all while their population grew by about 2000 people. In 2016 (the last year I was able to find) it was at 577 tons, after having reached a peak of 685 tons after the ban.
    *This State report is a voluntary survey which many towns participate in. It is where the 602 to 579 ton numbers come from, and is only indicative of the municipal waste program, not private providers.
    * Great Barrington has not participated in this survey for a few years, and even if it were an accurate indication of the effects of the ban, we have no way of measuring the impact.

    1. Joseph Method says:

      Interesting. It makes sense to me that the effect would be hard to measure and that the results would be mixed. For a ban like this to be effective there has to be a network effect. What if Lee and Stockbridge were to follow suit? What if other plastic disposable items were banned? Then you would predict a bigger and more consistent effect. But to build that network somebody has to go first. It seems to me that Concord made an initial gesture that they didn’t follow up on.

      1. Steve Farina says:

        Cynthia, this is not a “right wing/left wing issue”.
        The author interviewed actual people involved at ground level of the ban. They deal with the day to day. They deal with tourist responses. They are in position to see the impact on litter in the streets. They are business owners. Even the Concord Environmental Services Program Director was interviewed…like I said:
        “WARNING: this article contains real information. Supporters of the ban are going to hate this”

      2. Cynthia LaPier says:

        Hi Steve,
        You’re right, it’s a whole town issue. It’s just your 2016 AMI article that’s got an unbalanced right wing bent.
        Here’s an article from last week from WGBH that takes a balanced look at the bottle ban in Concord 5 years on. It acknowledges ongoing, legitimate opinions on both sides of the issue. But it also makes clear that the town now accepts it. (There were two early attempts to repeal their ban. Both failed.)
        https://www.wgbh.org/news/local-news/2018/06/05/a-look-at-concords-plastic-water-bottle-ban-five-years-in
        Concord, without 100% support, continues to move forward with a historic step in the right direction. They continue to improve availability of convenient municipal water filling stations. Businesses have found water products that fit their niche.
        Concord’s courageous journey is teaching the growing number of towns and cities who are considering joining the effort.

      3. Steve Farina says:

        Cynthia,

        Thank you for the link. I’m glad it makes you feel better that it is not from a “right wing” media source. It does, however, showcase some of the many downfalls seen in the link I included – and then some.

        Yes, 5 years on many accept it. However, we are not 5 years into our water ban. Concord discussed their ban in town meetings for 3 years before it narrowly passed, and those for and against were given the opportunity to share. In fact, the discussion during meeting in which it narrowly passed lasted 2 hours – and that was in the third year of discussions.
        According to the article you linked to: “after all these years — the water bottle ban is still the talk of the town.” That is 8 YEARS of discussion. Clearly many do not agree with it, and are forced to accept it by virtue of it being a town bylaw.

        Your link notes the use of cardboard and glass alternatives.
        I believe I was the first to publicly note on The Edge that this, supposedly, “carefully researched and worded” bylaw was actually banning ALL 1 liter and less water bottles, including cardboard and glass, in the original version of the Article. This oversight was amended during the reading of the motion for the Article at the ATM. Also amended was the portion regarding First Responders, which now allows them to purchase 1 liter plastic bottles, although no one is allowed to sell them, so there is no where for them to buy them in town. That is a ridiculous portion which added to the “feel good” emotional swing generated at the ATM.
        Your link notes that, in Concord, 5 additional filling stations have been added this year at $5000 a pop. What it does not mention is that although there are some private funds donated, these are paid for and maintained using taxpayer money – Community Preservation Act funds are used for install. These stations are only usable for at most 8-9 months per year, meaning they and the water lines need to be purged to avoid freezing in the winter. Water department or private citizen brigade? I suspect it falls to the water department, as it will in GB if these start getting installed. There is also the maintenance and cleaning of the units, and frankly I wouldn’t use a water fountain that some little snot nosed kid put his mouth on, or the filling station that some prankster teenager put who-knows-what on the dispenser tip…these have the potential to be very unsanitary.

        As for the effectiveness of the ban your link states:
        “But real, hard numbers about the ban’s impact five years in are hard to come by. Stevens says the new fountains have doled out a thousand gallons of water. That’s about 4,000 small plastic bottles worth, but can you really say all that tap water was used en lieu of bottles?”
        Your link then continues:
        “We ask the people who are driving the recycling trucks, ‘What are you seeing,’ and they say ‘We’ve definitely seen a decrease,'” she said. “But it’s hard to measure. So, I can’t say how many bottles we’ve saved, unfortunately.”

        So the people driving the recycling trucks are still seeing water bottles??? … but it is a decrease. They can’t tell how many they saved!

        In spite of this information, Erin Stevens, the town’s public information officer, states that she still believes it is making a difference.

        It is still making a difference, instead of the town’s people being divided over national politics, it has created a more local division – still going strong 5 years later, and still having essentially no impact on plastic usage.

  10. Barbara Barak says:

    Thank you for your article, Jennifer- it creates much optimism that this ban, though a difficult transition for many, can
    work out quite well over time. It will be a significant step towards addressing our overwhelming plastic pollution.
    As someone who formerly bought single use plastic water bottles in bulk and individually, I’ve achieved a transition to a refillable container without too much trouble. I refill my bottle often at Berkshire South gym, and look forward to more refill places around town and in stores. Refilling with tap water is also convenient. It won’t take much education to get people to change, and they can always get single bottles in bulk from other sources if they resist. I want to be part of a town that cares about our environmental disasters. When I look at pictures of plastic pollution in the oceans and shorelines, the small water bottles are overwhelming.

  11. concerned says:

    Why don’t they ban minature Liquor Bottles? They are everywhere,anywhere you walk,someone has randomly thrown one to two on the ground,parkings lots, sides of road.Riverwalk always has some in the foliage.They are ugly little things and just as bad, as the Plastic is thicker then a water bottle.

  12. Steve Farina says:

    I also agree that people will vote with their feet. I have been able to be a part of several recent events here in GB which were specifically celebrations by people from out of town. One was a Berkshire School graduation. The family from Miami came into town for their daughter’s graduation.
    As part of the celebration there was food and drink purchased for a bunch of people. Guido’s, the Co Op, Big-Y, and a local liqour store were all beneficiaries. Among the many items purchased were cases of 1 liter water bottles, used to keep a swarm of teenagers hydrated.
    Can you imagine the reaction of someone like this (ok, so it was the personal assistant) going into Big-Y to prep for a party, only to find out they can’t supply water? Or they need to buy some other disposable plastic product (solo cups, maybe) and tell the kids to keep coming in and out of the kitchen to “fill up” your water?
    Yeah, tell these (and other visitors) who just spent $3000 at your local store, “sorry, if you want the convenience of bottled water you will have to go to Sheffield, Stockbridge, or some other town. Lee has a Big-Y where you can buy water. Oh, yeah, or you can buy 100 of these stainless steel, or plastic refillable containers and go fill them at the water fountain/refilling station that will be installed at the local park some time in the future”.
    People will vote with their feet! They will not return the GB to celebrate, party, picnic, or wed. There are other local towns who will be easier to deal with.

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