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Concord fires first shot in water battle

Residents’ vote for bottle ban fans controversy

By David Abel and Jason Woods
Globe Staff | Globe Correspondent / May 1, 2010

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CONCORD — For years, Jean Hill has been reading about the environmental consequences of the countless plastic bottles filling landfills and polluting local waters. She has watched as other towns around the country have cut purchases of bottled water, which she views as a wasteful, environmentally damaging alternative to tap water.

This week, after lobbying neighbors and local officials for months, the 82-year-old activist persuaded them to take more drastic action than perhaps any other municipality in the country: At Town Meeting on Thursday, Concord residents voted to ban all sales of bottled water.

“All these discarded bottles are damaging our planet, causing clumps of garbage in the oceans that hurt fish, and are creating more pollution on our streets,’’ Hill said. “This is a great achievement to be the first in the country to do this. This is about addressing an injustice.’’

The move has at least briefly put this affluent, left-leaning suburb, where Henry David Thoreau’s legacy is hard to escape, at the center of the long-running controversy over bottled water. Environmentalists heaped praise on the community and declared the vote a call to action for similar moves in Massachusetts and across the country. And the $10 billion bottled-water industry quickly reacted.

“We obviously don’t think highly of the vote in Concord,’’ said Joe Doss, president of the International Bottled Water Association, a trade association that represents bottlers, suppliers, and distributors. “Any efforts to discourage consumers from drinking water, whether tap water or bottled water, is not in the best interests of consumers. Bottled water is a very healthy, safe, convenient product that consumers use to stay hydrated.’’

Some local officials wonder if the vote is legal and worried it could invite legal challenges from the industry or retailers who might argue the move improperly restricts trade. Selectwoman Virginia McIntyre said she supports Hill’s goals but voted against the ban because she thinks the town will have to spend money to defend it in court.

“It’s questionable whether Town Meeting even has the authority to ban the sale of plastic water bottles,’’ she said. “We understand it’s an emotional issue, and probably the right thing to do, but why should we spend scarce public resources on legal fees defending it? I doubt that’s the best use of tax dollars.’’

Others said it made little sense for Concord to ban the sale of a product that’s easy to find just across the town line.

“I think [residents] will just go to Costco and buy in bulk and bring it back to Concord,’’ said Paul Mandrioli, owner of West Concord Supermarket. “It will take away a little business, but we’ve survived a lot more, and a lot worse. I think it will bother some customers, mostly visitors from other towns. But in Concord, the majority spoke. It’s not going to put us under.’’

Bottled water, whose image as a pure and healthful alternative to soda has driven staggering sales over the last decade, has increasingly been viewed in recent years as an environmental bane that contributes mountains of waste plastic to the environment and burns fuel to truck across the country.

More than 100 municipalities in the United States have sought to reduce consumption of bottled water. San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Miami, Chicago, and Chapel Hill, N.C., have banned government purchases of bottled water. Others, including Boston, Somerville, and Cambridge, have taken pledges to phase out city spending on bottled water.

Last year, merchants in the Australian town of Bundanoon agreed to a voluntary ban on bottled water, a move that was hailed at the time as a world first.

With Concord’s ban, some environmentalists were ready to make bold pronouncements.

“Concord’s vote is an indication of the movement, that the support of public tap water over bottled water is growing,’’ said Deborah Lapidus, a spokeswoman for Corporate Accountability International, a Boston group that has sought to reduce the consumption of bottled water.

Industry advocates said they are not aware of any other town that has taken such strong action against the sale of bottled water, which last year totaled $10.6 billion for 8.5 billion gallons nationwide, nearly 28 gallons per American, according to the Beverage Marketing Corp, a New York-based industry group. That was up from 5.1 billion gallons ($6.8 billion in sales) of bottled water in 2001. In Massachusetts in 2008, 46.3 gallons of bottled water per resident of were sold, ranking fourth in the nation.

Doss, of the bottled water association, and other advocates said the industry has sought to reduce its environmental footprint by making bottles smaller and using less oil to make the plastic. They also argued it was unfair to target just one product, when many fruit drinks, sodas, and other beverages also use plastic packaging.

“I am sure this was a well-intentioned proposal in Concord, but I think it’s misguided, because it’s based on misinformation, misconception, and mischaracterization of a product that has a lot of benefits,’’ said Chris Flynn, president of the Massachusetts Food Association, which represents the state’s supermarkets and groceries. “Bottled water is used in times of need, often in natural disasters. It’s also a healthy product.’’

For Hill and other environmental advocates, bottled water is unlike other products, because there’s a ready and free alternative at the tap. Hill said Concord’s ordinance, which won’t take effect until next January, is part of a statewide effort to pass a new bottle law. The state’s 29-year-old law, she and others say, is out of date. It allows consumers to redeem bottles and cans from soda, beer, malt beverages, and mineral water for 5 cents, but doesn’t allow for the return of bottles from noncarbonated water, iced tea, juices, or energy drinks, which account for about one-third of all beverages sold in Massachusetts.

A bill that would expand the law in Massachusetts to cover the other drinks and raise the redemption fee to 10 cents to adjust for inflation has stalled in the Legislature.

Hill pointed to a study by the Container Recycling Institute, a Washington-based group that monitors the recycling of bottles, that found 88 percent of plastic water bottles are not recycled, at the rate of 30 million a day. “I think it’s a disgrace what’s going on with these bottles,’’ Hill said. “This is the starting of making a real change in Massachusetts.’’

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com.

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