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A Residents Opinion on Concord's Bottle Ban

Earlier this year the town of Concord, Massachusetts passed a ban on plastic water bottles.  It was passed during a Town meeting to be implemented January 1, 2011.  The publicity gained for Jean Hill, the bans creator, and for Concord has certainly be favorable – but almost solely from those living outside of Concord.

As a Concord resident, environmentalist,  and father to a one year old I thought I would offer my opinion on the topic that has all but flooded my Twitter search for ‘concord ma’.

I oppose it.

To be more accurate, I hate it.

It’s worth noting that I applaud the end goal – people should certainly be more aware of the ramifications of their actions on a global scale.  Recent issues like the BP oil disaster should highlight the fact that individuals have a more noticeable impact on the global economy and environment than ever before.  Education is the only long term solution to the issue.  Hill’s ban, however, is short sighted and here is why I think it was a step in the wrong direction.

Health Reasons

Water is one of, if not the, healthiest drink options available today.  As a parent of a one-year old daughter I absolutely cringe at the thought that one day she will only have access to soda and sugar water when shopping.  As a cyclist I have also run out of water on longer rides and resorted to buying water when there were no fountains nearby (as recently as this spring I spent close to an hour riding around an elementary school looking for a water source without luck).  While we should encourage people not to abuse the convenience, for health reasons alone, we should always have water readily available.

Where is the line?

The current ban focuses solely on plastic bottled water but there are a lot of unanswered questions.  What about in-home water coolers?  What about one-gallon containers?  What about soda, juice, and alcohol served in plastic bottles?  Is it the sale or ownership of, that makes it illegal?  Can I give water bottles out for free?  What about Concord’s own O Water that is water with added nutrients?  My point is that the ban, under its current plan, leaves a lot of loose room for interpretation which will only cause future headaches in the administration and enforcement of this ban.

Emergency Situations?

This spring Boston also had a water main break that made most of Boston and Metro-Boston’s water undrinkable.  People were required to boil their water and obviously a lot of people turned to purchasing.  Had they been in Concord they might not have water available.  Is this an acceptable risk?  No.  Is telling people to purchase it from another town an acceptable answer?  No (classic case of “not in my back yard”).  It is speculated that one of the large drivers for beers creation and popularity among the ages was due to its purity (most notably during the Black Plague).  Maybe we should stock pile beer (which I may already be guilty of) but banning water in such a limited capacity and without consideration to reality is certainly not an improvement.

Legally Enforceable?

Whether the Town even has the ability to enforce the ban is questionable at best.  According to the NYT article, “town officials said the ban appeared unenforceable. They have asked the state attorney general’s office for guidance.”

Who will enforce it?

Simply put, who is going to enforce this?  Are the Concord Police expected to issue citations to anyone selling plastic water bottles?  Is the Town Hall going to have a complaint department where citizens can file infractions to later be reviewed?

Legal Costs

Can the Town of Concord afford the legal costs of enforcing the ban?  Simply put, no, we can’t.  The town is currently in the process of shutting off street lights unless local residents agree to pay for them to stay on.  I can only imagine the legal fees associated with enforcing this ban not only on a local level (residents given citations) but at larger levels (the Bottled Water Association has threatened a lawsuit based on interstate commerce considerations if the ban is enforced).

Surrounding towns

Mrs. Hill has even mentioned in the NYT that, “in a crisis — or whenever they wanted — the people of Concord could always get bottled water elsewhere.”  Doesn’t that defeat the purpose of the entire act to begin with?  Does she want Concord to simply be the first “dry” town, thereby shifting commerce to outside towns and away from local vendors?

Why not impose a tax or deposit to create funds available for education and/or cleanup?  Why not champion sales of reusable water bottles (Hill refers to these as “Thermos’”)?  Corn plastics are also gaining popularity, why not work with specific companies to get more research behind their concept?

Overall, it’s short sighted.

Our resources would be better spent fighting smarter battles.  While Hill has won the short-term battle of getting some media attention to Concord she has distracted everyone from fighting the long term war of environmental cleanup.   (A small town in Australia has had a similar ban with more thought going into the ban but it is difficult to find follow up information on the results and impact since implemented.)

Update/side note: Can we at least stop attributing this to something that Henry David Thoreau would be proud of?  The man wrote, “that government is best which governs least”!

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