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Town that banned bottled water now can't get enough of it

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 said.
 
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 veterans.
 
Inside the visitor center, run by the Concord Chamber of Commerce, Arthur Walker was giving directions to tourists. 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,” Healey said.

“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 trucks.”
 
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 other.
 
“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 being proactive.

“You have to consider the environment,” he said.