Great Barrington banned plastic water bottle sales; now it will be challenged at special town meeting

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GREAT BARRINGTON — A group looking to overturn a recent ban on the sale of small plastic water bottles has raised enough signatures to hold a special town meeting for a new vote.

Opponents of the ban raised 337 signatures and turned them in Wednesday, according to Town Clerk Marie Ryan — 200 are required to call a special town meeting. Ryan said the town Select Board would likely schedule it at its July 9 meeting. It must be held within 45 days, she said.

The town is the first in Berkshire County, and the third in the U.S., to ban the sale of single-serve bottles containing still water, 1 liter or less. Like residents first in Concord, then Sudbury, voters at Great Barrington's annual town meeting in May approved the ban, which would go into effect Jan. 1, with exceptions for emergencies.

The ban is the result of a campaign by the environment committee of the Berkshire Women's Action Group, which also began a parallel campaign to install water bottle refill stations around town to draw customers to shops that might lose money from the ban. The group pointed to studies that peg low recycling rates, and hyper-use of single-serve bottles, as contributing to a worldwide plastic crisis that is climbing the food chain. Supporters of the ban also said bottling companies, which make $16 billion every year from the product, are often selling municipal water at jacked up prices that is not necessarily as safe as local tap water.

But of the 400 voters at town meeting, some said a ban could hurt local businesses, and that the real problem is low recycling rates, which are as low as 9.5 percent, according to a 2016 analysis by the U.S. Environmental Agency.

The proposed ban drew some bigger fish into this small pond: the president of the Massachusetts Food Association.

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"It's a risk to local shopkeepers and their employees, creates potential health and safety issues, and doesn't even really fix the issue it claims to solve," said Chris Flynn, in a prepared statement made available to voters at town meeting.

The group that started the campaign issued a statement Wednesday, saying a special town meeting would be yet another shot at drilling down into all the reasons to uphold the ban, and detail ways to bring refill stations to town, and how those could help merchants.

But the statement also pointed to a larger reality that streams into a small Berkshires town.

"The plastics-recycling markets have dried up. Since China closed its doors [to U.S. recyclables], the dollars we used to receive have turned into pennies," it said. "Even before that, a paltry percentage of plastic was actually recycled, and the rest went to landfills, incineration, and waterways."

But in a hard-pressed rural economy, those little bottles are a bread and butter item, according to another flyer floating around at town meeting, that suggested people would simply do their water shopping in another town.

"This would result in lost sales for local businesses as shoppers take all of their shopping elsewhere — which could mean fewer hours for their employees and possibly even force them to cut local jobs."

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter at @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.


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