The town of Concord, Massachusetts has banned the sale of bottled water, effective January 2011. Concord passed the measure in response to environmental concerns. Sales of refillable containers of water will still be allowed.
Ironically, a water main ruptured less than two days after the measure passed, resulting in 2 million Boston-area residents losing potable water.
Legality May Be Disputed
The ban may run into legal obstacles, as town officials acknowledge they may need approval from the state to enforce the measure. The town officials did not approve the ban as an ordinance but instead passed it as a policy, which does not include measures for enforcement or possible fines.
The ban has to be evaluated by state Attorney General Martha Coakley, and the Concord Board of Selectmen is waiting to see whether the attorney general’s office will review it.
Proponents of the ban say they hope it will lead other municipalities to take the same steps in reducing use of plastic. They also hope the decision may prompt state officials to pass a bill to expand Massachusetts’ bottle deposit system, which was adopted in 1983 to encourage recycling and reduce littering.
State lawmakers are considering a new bill (H3515/S1480) to expand the deposit system, which is currently limited to carbonated beverages. Activists are hoping to expand it to include water, tea, juice, and sports drinks. The bill has yet to come to a vote.
Opponents of expansion of the deposit system say the five-cent refund is really a tax on those who do not return their cans and bottles. On the other side of the equation, some activists say it doesn’t go far enough because it does not discourage the use of plastic bottles in the first place.
Calls Restrictions Misguided
Benjamin Powell, an assistant professor of economics at Suffolk University, says the ban and deposit systems are misguided.
“Governments have no business banning the sale of bottled water or any other beverage. Activists complain that oil is used to make plastic and that plastic often goes in dumps. But the cost of the oil is factored into whether a company should produce in plastic, aluminum, or any other material,” Powell said.
“If the oil was scarce relative to the value created by plastic, companies would switch on their own,” Powell explained. “If towns charge correctly for waste disposal and recycling, these costs are internalized to consumers and producers, too.”
“In short,” Powell summarized, “there is no ‘market failure’ in plastic water bottles. Local government bans are particularly ill-conceived because they aren’t even likely to impact the number of bottles consumed, and consumers will easily cross between town lines to make purchases.”
Sarah McIntosh ([email protected]) teaches constitutional law and American politics at Wichita State University in Kansas.