Woe to the thirsty of Concord, Mass. Under a bylaw born of convoluted reasoning, a person who heads into a store in that town for some hydration will be able to buy a plastic bottle of soda, but not a similar bottle of what dietitians say should be the drink of choice: water.
That’s because Concord has become the first city in the United States to ban the sale of serving-size bottled water. It’s enough to make New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose proposed ban on the sale of large servings of soda is up for a key vote this week, weep.
Yet the two ideas have a lot in common. Both represent sincere attempts to fight social ills. In New York’s case, obesity; in Concord’s, the pileup of plastic bottles in landfills. Both also suffer from a lack of consistency (the soda law, for instance, would allow big servings of other drinks with even more calories) and are an unwelcome interference in the marketplace. Both started in one city but involve campaigns with national ambitions.
Bottled water owes its popularity to a variety of factors: a misconception that all bottled water is safer or purer than the stuff that flows from the tap; convenience; flavor; concerns about the chlorination or fluoridation of tap water; and marketing that gave bottled water a trendy image.
Americans guzzle from 2.5 million plastic bottles an hour, according to Boston University, NASA and other sources; more than 70% of those are thrown away rather than recycled. We certainly could be doing better. Many places do: In Sweden, more than 80% of plastic bottles are recycled, in part because of public service campaigns that this country could imitate.
Some towns provide recycling bins next to or on top of sidewalk trash cans. Cities that do their own sorting of household trash glean more recyclables than those that depend on residents to do the job. Well-maintained public drinking fountains and vending machines that dispense single servings of cold, filtered water would encourage more reuse of bottles. Bigger deposits on bottles would help. And do all those kids playing Saturday morning sports really need individual plastic bottles to throw out instead of a team cooler and reusable bottles?
But Concord’s new bylaw is unnecessarily intrusive and problematically inconsistent. A plastic bottle that holds soda is no less damaging to the environment than one that holds water. Why pick on one and not the other? Why force a convenience-seeking customer who forgot his reusable bottle to choose a less-healthy option? Sure, it’s one town of fewer than 18,000 people, but this isn’t a policy we’d like to see travel cross-country.