Support grows for bottled water sale ban

By Doug Struck
Globe Correspondent

The growing support shown in Concord this week for its ban on the sale of bottled water is a lesson in how public policy works. Given the paralysis in Washington, Concord offers a needed reminder that the levers of democracy can achieve progress on the environmental front.

In 2012, the town of 17,000 voted in a Town Meeting to become the first municipality in the country to ban the sale of personal-sized plastic bottles of water. Proponents, who said the ubiquitous plastic bottles were an assault on the environment, won the ban by only 39 votes after a long battle involving two previous efforts, a skittish Board of Selectmen, an adverse opinion by the state attorney general, and vigorous opposition by bottle manufacturers.

The ban took effect January 1. In April, after a telephone solicitation campaign some said was financed by the water bottle manufacturers, the Town Meeting considered a move to repeal the ban, and rejected it by seven votes.

Wednesday night, opponents tried again to get rid of the law, perhaps figuring that residents would be tired of the issue and would not show up for the Town Meeting. But 1,127 registered voters packed the high school auditorium, cafeteria and gym, and sat for nearly three hours to vote on the bottle ban again. This time, the results were not even close: moderator Eric Van Loon called the vote by a show of hands with no objections, and the bottle ban was overwhelmingly upheld. (Full disclosure: I was in the crowd; I’m a resident.)

The growing support for the bottle ban is a pattern familiar to those seeking to use laws and regulations to advance environmental — or other — causes. In case after case, whenever new regulations for the public good are proposed — whether they be for environmental protection or virtually any other issue of public welfare — the vested economic interests are the first to cry that the sky is falling.

Businesses will never be able to bear the burdensome extra costs, goes the argument. Workers will lose jobs, the economy will suffer, and everyone will be hurt.

The oil companies made that argument when federal authorities finally acknowledged that the lead in gasoline was maiming our children and ought to be eliminated. The car manufacturers argued that when they were required to put seat belts in their vehicles, and again when California authorities said we really ought to have vehicles that get mileage almost as good as Chinese cars. The tobacco companies argued that bans on smoking in restaurants would kill the eatery businesses.

Then what happens? The regulation gets passed, the companies shrug and retool, often modernizing and becoming more efficient, and they make more money, not less. And the public, often polarized by the debate, begins to see the regulation isn’t so bad, and supports it.

In Concord, much the same is happening on a local level. Opponents argued the bottle ban would bring an avalanche of lawsuits, unfairly burden businesses, and drive tourists away. Instead, the town has largely adapted: School kids now find reusable water jugs are fashionable, and the kids clip them on their backpacks and refill them from “hydration stations” throughout the schools. Shops in town now sprout “Ask for Water” invitations and are more than happy to have potential customers come in for a cool sip. Some convenience stores now sell water in paper cartons– a pyrrhic victory, perhaps, but it eliminates the plastic. The town hasn’t been sued, tourists still come in droves.

And, as the vote Wednesday night showed, people have concluded that the law isn’t so bad after all.

Opponents of the bottle ban have largely given up the economic arguments. They continue to oppose the ban, on other grounds. They say it isn’t working — thirsty customers can still buy soda or flavored water — or that people ought to have a right to buy what they want.

The bottle ban proponents acknowledge that the law is easily circumvented — one store in West Concord gave away “free” bottles of water to customers who bought a sandwich, thus avoiding the ban on sales. But they contend it is valuable for the town to strike a pose on principal.

Jean Hill, the 86-year-old widow whose personal crusade for the bottle sale ban was reaffirmed last night, thinks Concord is a guide for other municipalities.

“By our victory, other towns will follow,” she said Thursday. “Our planet is really in danger. There is only so much pollution the planet can take.”

She says she plans on extending that argument to the next fight: “Next year, I’m taking on plastic shopping bags.”