Residents and tourists in Concord, Massachusetts, which banned the sale of single-serving plastic water bottles in 2012, are coping with an extreme drought and record-breaking August temperatures by purchasing plastic-bottled beverages by the truckload.
The ban, town officials and locals said on
Wednesday, has produced no measurable reduction in plastic waste or litter.
“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.
Concord has dual-stream recycling in which paper is sorted into
one stream and all other recyclables into another. 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
The town's board of health, which is charged with enforcing the
ban, does not measure its effectiveness either.
“I don’t think that anybody’s doing that,” Assistant Public
Health Director Stanley Sosnicki said.
Even if it were measurable, Sosnicki said, its effect would be
tiny when the town’s size is considered. “The reduction of plastic that this may have done in town is a
fraction of what it would be statewide.”
People often just buy single-serving water bottles in neighboring
towns, reducing the effect of the ban, Sosnicki and other residents said.
On Wednesday, carrying plastic cups from local restaurants and
plastic bottles from local convenience stores, tourists and locals strolled
past historic homes and cemeteries containing the remains of Revolutionary War
Inside the visitor center, run by the Concord Chamber of
Commerce, Arthur Walker was giving directions to
The Concord resident supported the ban, he said, because he opposed the
“unconscionable” overuse of plastic. Beside him was a lemonade in a 20-ounce
plastic cup, which he purchased from Main Streets Market & Cafe next to the
visitor center. “I admit guilt to using it,” he said. “We are all supposed to be
environmentally conscious, but we all lapse.”
Tour guide Peter Healey said he opposed the ban, which he called
“ridiculous.” In the recent heat wave, he has advised tourists to stay
hydrated. The town provides a “tap map” of water fountains, but Walker
said few people take it. They want to carry water with them.
“They’re sort of puzzled, to say the least,” when told they can
buy sparking water, soda, lemonade, tea and iced coffee in single-serving
plastic bottles, but not water, Healey said.
“I haven’t noticed a bit of difference as far as litter goes,”
“I haven’t either,” Walker added.
The ban applies to the sale of plastic water bottles of one liter
(34 ounces) or less. They can be given away, but not sold. At Crosby’s Marketplace, a
local supermarket, the beverage aisle displays rows of 1.5 liter water bottles.
“The fire department will come in and buy 10 cases of this,” the grocery manager, Dave Montroy said, pointing to the 1.5 liter bottles. “They put them on the
In the summer, the store sells pallets upon pallets of water and
flavored beverages in plastic bottles, Montroy said. The store, like others in
town, stocks single-serving water in paper boxes. “Some of the people at the beginning were like, ‘Ooooh, it tastes cardboardy,’”
he said. Now, the boxes sell, he said.
At the Trail’s End Corner Store, just around the corner from the
town office complex, Gatorade in 20-oz and 28-oz plastic bottles is a brisk
seller. The store is in one end of a small building, a restaurant occupies the
“Gatorade is our biggest seller, especially in the hot weather," Corner Store clerk Paul Gallagher said. “Or they just get the liter bottle.
Sometimes I suggest they go next door and get a cup of water, but they don’t
want to do that. We used to give away water, but people wouldn’t take it.”
Across the street at the board of health, Karen Byrne, the
administrative assistant, works at a neat desk. Her top shelf displays a banned
20-ounce water bottle. A large trash bag on the floor is full of plastic
bottles that once held various flavors of sparkling water. “I go through three a day,” she said.
At the Oct. 16, 2012, meeting of the board of health, members
made clear they did not support the ban as a public health measure. “We like water,” Byrne said.
Although no one in town can buy a 20-oz bottle of water, “they
might have soda, so take that for what you will,” she said.
The bottle ban “was not a warrant article put forth by the board
of health,” she said. “It was a town petition. There’s a lot to think about
other than just cut it (plastic) out,” she said.
At Concord Provisions, a small grocer across town, butcher Chris
Simcox said people who come and ask for water do not leave without a beverage. “Tourists ask for it all the time,” he said, “especially in the summer
because they walk around. If they don’t feel like buying the big bottle of
water, they’ll buy like an iced tea or a seltzer water.”
By next summer, though, the scene might be different. A warrant
article passed in the spring forbids retail establishments from selling food or
beverages in polystyrene or rigid polystyrene containers “unless equivalent
biodegradable, compostable, reusable, or recyclable food service ware products
are available for sale and are clearly labeled …”
Resident John Rainey, sitting on a stone bench and sipping a
Starbucks iced coffee in a plastic cup, said it was important for the town to
take an incremental approach.
“You’ve got to start small; otherwise, you’re not going to get
anybody on board,” he said. “Baby steps. You do a total ban, you’re not going
to get a lot of people buying it.”
Although that ban takes effect in July of next year, Crosby’s
already complies. It offers paper plates and cups as well as poultry and meats
on paper trays.
The cost of compliance was considerable, Montroy said. “There is
a big price difference.” But he said customers appreciate that the story is
“You have to consider the environment,” he said.