Ruth Bass: May Barrington's ban on bottle sales bring a flood of followers

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RICHMOND — Back when nearly everyone was smoking, quitters would brag about how much money they were saving now that they no longer bought cigarettes. For anyone who smoked a pack a day or more, what went into the piggy bank could make a special vacation possible. Apparently, the same goes for those who decide to turn on the faucet instead of buying a bottle of water.

But Great Barrington wasn't aiming to save its citizens cash when it banned the sale of small bottles of water, starting in January. What the voters did was put in an admittedly small word about saving the environment from the invasion of the bottle. And the vote made Barrington the third place in the nation — the others are also in Massachusetts — where small bottles of water won't be on the shelves.

Obviously, residents can pop over to Lenox or Lee and pick up packs of bottled water, just as teens once went to New York state to get a beer when they weren't eligible here. The Barrington ban would have to become a movement if the environment were to get the maximum possible benefits.

Great Barrington's vote is literally a drop in the bucket when you consider that the world buys some 20,000 bottles of water every second. But it's a statement worth making. We pat ourselves on the back thinking of all those containers going into recycling bins and remembering the Malden man who found he could make beautiful fleece jackets with recycled plastic. But the bean counters report that fewer than half of the bottles bought in 2016 were recycled. So billions, if their numbers are correct, live long lives in landfills or end up in the ocean where they are ingested by seabirds and fish and eventually release toxic chemicals. The Guardian recently reported that Belgian scientists think people who eat seafood also ingest 11,000 little bits of plastic a year.

Cutting down on plastic bottles saves energy, saves the water used in production, saves packaging and cuts down on pollution. It also saves the water drinker a lot of money. The average cost of a small bottle of water is $1.21, The Guardian reports, unless you're at a special event where the temperature is high and the thirst great. Then you're willing to pay anything and you do. Tap water, on the other hand, costs $2 for a thousand gallons. You can buy a wardrobe of stylish water bottles and a charcoal filter for your faucet and still drop change in the piggy bank.

Some Americans protest that their tap water doesn't taste good, but blind water tastings have become common, and if you don't live in the rare place like Flint, Mich., tap water does well when put up against some of the most popular commercial brands. The funny factor in all this is that many of those companies rely on tap water for their bottles. If they are doing business in drought-ridden California, the factor is not so funny.

In some countries, people swim in the river, wash their clothes in the river and fill a bucket with river water for use in the house. (Our father told us, when we were playing in the pastures and woods at our grandparents' farm, that we could drink any water we happened upon, as long as it was "running good." So, we'd belly-flop next to a stream in the pasture, decide it was moving, slurp it up and live to tell the tale. We use faucets now.) Anyway, the United States has the best water in the world, the scientists say. We wash our hands with it and consider them clean, we shampoo our hair with it, shower in it, use it on our vegetable gardens, cook with it and let our dogs lap it up. It's also, most places, good to drink.

People with private wells test their water themselves. Government officials test community supplies, and if the rules don't leach away for political reasons, we are protected by the Safe Drinking Water Act, passed by Congress in 1974. The faucet remains, in the long run, safer for humanity than the bottle.

Ruth Bass deals with slightly hard well water in Richmond. Her website is www.ruthbass.com.

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