Water has set Concord, Massachusetts ablaze.
Wednesday night, over 1300 of the 17,668 members of the town streamed into Concord-Carlisle Regional High School for the annual Town Meeting. They filled an auditorium, then a cafeteria, then a gymnasium—section by section until both sets of retractable bleachers were crowded with Concordians.
Most of them were there to discuss one issue: bottled water.
In 2010, at the annual Town Meeting, Concord added to its already historic legacy by being the first town in the country to pass a law banning the sale of water in plastic bottles sized one liter or less. The town debated the ban for the fourth year in a row Wednesday night—a little less than four months after it went into effect January 1—narrowly voting against a petition to repeal it 687 votes to 621.
The ban was first proposed by 84-year-old Jean Hill at the Town Meeting in 2010 where it was passed, but it quickly came under legal scrutiny, preventing it from going into effect until this year.
Nonetheless, the ban’s implementation has hardly kept those opposed to it from conceding. Cumberland Farms, a local convenience store just a few hundred feet from the train station, still sells bottled water of all sizes. Huge packs of bottled water are clearly visible in the front window, placed strategically beneath a sign that reads “Free the Water.” The Boston Globe reported in January that the store showed no signs of stopping, even after three visits from the town’s public health director who issued fines of $25 and $50 like the law stipulates.
To begin the discussion of the petition, each side was given six minutes to make their case. Robin Garrison, co-founder of Concord Residents for Consumer Choice (CRCC) and the petitioner of the repeal, argued that most people in Concord choose to recycle as is, and the ban does not drastically reduce plastic waste like it is meant to. Instead, she said it takes away the only healthy options residents face at convenience stores, leaving them with unhealthy options like soda and sugary sports drinks whose containers use more plastic than bottled water.
“This is a battle of choices,” she said, adding her view that the ban sends the message, “Concord people are not smart enough to make good choices.”
Jill Appel, a member of the town’s Comprehensive Sustainable Energy Committee, took up the other side of the issue, talking about the ways members of Concord have already weaned themselves off bottled water and about the city’s other sustainability efforts.
“We all believe in individual choice, but sometimes it’s better to make choices together,” she said.
She also cited a report from the American Medical Association that says the majority of plastic water bottles in the United States are not recycled.
After each side presented its opening arguments, residents of Concord were given the chance to present their own reasons to support or strike down the ban. Many people echoed the feelings of Garrison and Appel, and a few residents offered valuable insight into the issue.
One woman who worked in crisis management was concerned about the necessity of bottled water during emergencies. The law includes an exemption from the ban in the case of an emergency, but she had doubts that the town would be able to scrounge enough together without the normal reserves.
Other people questioned whether four months was enough time to say anything substantial about what effect, if any, the ban has had.
After a little over 40 minutes of discussion, one man approached the microphone, looked at his watch and announced they had been debating the issue for three years, one hour and a little under ten minutes. He proposed that they end the debate and vote. The town agreed.
And thus, the Concord water ban prevailed once again.