Editor's note: This article was updated on March 20, 2018, to correct the quote stating, "There will be more plastic in the ocean than fish [by weigh] by 2020." The year has been changed to 2050.
GREAT BARRINGTON — Inspired by what was done in Thoreau's hometown, a group of environmental activists is attempting a big green move in the Berkshires.
Alarmed by the shocking production and disposal path of single-use plastic water bottles, the Environment Committee of the Berkshire Women's Action Group wants to ban sales of water bottles 1 liter, or 34 ounces, and smaller and install water refill stations around town to dispense what the group says is high quality town water.
It's a growing movement across the country, particularly on college campuses.
Concord did it in 2012 amid lawsuit threats from the water bottling industry. The birthplace of Henry David Thoreau was the first town in the U.S. to enact a bylaw that the committee has used as a model for the one it has placed on Great Barrington's town meeting warrant.
Voters will get to decide there May 7.
The ban would take effect Jan. 1 and have an exemption in the event something goes wrong with town water.
The reasons to ban the small bottles are many, say committee members, who met with The Eagle last week. What takes a minute to chug down is held by something that takes, by some estimates, at least 400 years to decompose.
"It takes water and oil to make the plastic. It takes oil to transport [the bottles], and most of the plastic isn't being recycled," said Marcia Arland, one of the group's five members.
A global crisis
Those ubiquitous things Americans spent $16 billion on in 2016 are contributing to a worldwide plastic waste crisis. The U.S. was so overwhelmed with its plastic garbage that it was shipping to China for disposal, until China said it couldn't handle it anymore, and stopped it Jan. 1.
According to the Pacific Institute, a nonprofit that conducts research about the environment, 17 million barrels of oil are used to make the bottles — as much as it would take to run 1.3 million cars for one year. This figure does not include the oil used for transportation of the bottles to stores.
Then, say committee members, much less than half of plastic gets recycled. The numbers vary on this, but different sources peg the recycling rate at anywhere between 38 percent down to 9.5 percent, the latter a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency figure from 2014.
The global take on this is staggering — a two-year study published in 2017 in the journal Science Advances said only 9 percent of the 6.3 billion metric tons of plastic waste ever produced has been recycled.
Because landfills and the environment can't keep up, much of it ends up in the ocean.
"There will be more plastic in the ocean than fish [by weight] by 2050," said Wendy Kleinman, another committee member.
That projection comes from a deep and groundbreaking analysis of the plastics economy conducted by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, named for the knighted sailor who broke the world record in 2005 for fastest solo circumnavigation around the world.
There is mounting concern. By 2020, for instance, France will have banned all plastic plates, cups and utensils.
Then there are the health questions.
Arland said, apart from leaching plastic, bottled water is not necessarily healthier than tap water, which has stringent regulations. Bottling companies regulate themselves. In this regard, she said buying water that comes from Fiji is "ridiculous," for instance.
According to information on the federal Food and Drug Administration's website, bottling companies are in charge of testing their own water.
She said the bottling industry "has created a manufactured demand" by trying to persuade a health-conscious public that bottled water is cleaner.
Committee member Jennifer Clark jumps in. "It's like the cigarette companies telling us we would be cool if we smoked cigarettes," she said.
It's not necessarily better or healthier, but Arland said people are paying for something 2,000 times more expensive than tap water.
"The soft drink industry went after water when it realized they would have a loss from the healthy trend [of drinking water]," said committee member Marg Wexler.
Cues from Concord
In Great Barrington, which already bans the use of plastic bags by stores, there's not been too much resistance, and there's been great support, Clark said.
Clark said the group is very sensitive to retailers, and wants to include them in the strategy of where to locate freestanding or wall-mounted stations.
The group has also found support from students at Monument Mountain Regional High School, who use refill stations at the school.
Freestanding stations cost about $3,000, and more if "freeze resistant."
Clark said the group is working with town officials for ideas about how to pay for the stations with a combination of public and private money, and possibly corporate funding.
Using Concord as a model, the group hopes for a townwide system and map of filling stations, just like Concord's.
In Concord, they are bylaw-proud, said Erin Stevens, the town's public information officer.
"There are a lot of people that love it," she said. "They believe we're starting a revolution of sorts."
The town has banned retail use of plastic bags and polystyrene, or Styrofoam.
Stevens said locals are used to the ban, but tourists will say, "what do you mean you don't have plastic water bottles?"
Stores in town carry boxed water in the 1-liter size, instead, she said.
The town isn't stopping, either, Stevens said.
"We're continuously putting in more filling stations."
The local playing fields are one place the town realized the need for water stations for students in after school sports.
"It is exciting to be part of this movement," Stevens said, noting that the lawsuit promised by the bottling industry never materialized.
Wexler said the only way to do something about what the group says is a bottle scourge is to force the behavior.
"Asking people to be conscientious is not really going to get us anywhere," she said.
Heather Bellow can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.