Bozeman city employees follow suit

Krysti Shallenberger Explorebigsky.com Contributor

Concord, Mass. has been home to several famous people including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Lousia May Alcott and Henry David Thoreau. Now the city holds another distinction: the first American town to ban single-serve plastic water bottles.

Led by 85-year-old activist Jean Hill, Concord passed the law on Jan. 1, 2013. Despite the New Year’s date, this ban was three years in the making, since Hill spent a day with her grandson in nearby Acton, Mass.

“He said, ‘Grandma, did you know there are patches of garbage, of plastic garbage as big as Texas in the Atlantic Ocean?” Hill said.

After researching these garbage islands and the effect of plastic on the environment, she found bottles were a major source of pollution. She targeted plastic water bottles, because they undermined the public’s trust in the municipal water system, she said.

Plastic accounted for 31 million tons of waste in 2010, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Only 8 percent was recycled.

These numbers alarmed Hill, and she set about putting together a petition with the required 10 signatures. After some debate and dealing with a young town manager that let the town meetings drag on, Hill finally saw her ban passed.

Despite opposition from a conservative group called Citizens for Consumer Freedom who tried to repeal the ban shortly after it passed, Concord residents have rallied behind Hill. The local grocery store set up a “rehydration” booth where patrons can refill reusable water bottles.

Larger plastic bottles are still sold in Concord stores, and Hill brushes off protests arguing that banning water bottles will lead to more purchases of sugary drinks and juices.

The town’s success has raised some eyebrows and heads. San Francisco citizens have since impelled legislators to enact a similar ban, but as of May 2013, Concord was still the only town where plastic water bottles cannot be sold.

Approximately 16 college campuses have also banned the sale of plastic water bottles, according to Ban the Bottle, a nonprofit aiming to discontinue the use of plastic bottles nationwide. Government offices are following the trend as well, forbidding employees from purchasing plastic water bottles. Bozeman’s city government is no exception.

Under the Municipal Climate Action plan led by sustainability coordinator Natalie Meyers, public employees in Bozeman are no longer allowed to buy plastic water containers. To encourage using local tap water, employees were given steel water bottles.

But Meyers doesn’t think a town-wide water bottle ban would work in Bozeman.

“We found that even though you couldn’t purchase plastic water bottles, employees purchased juices and sugary drinks instead, making the choices less healthy,” she said.

Meyers said the city is not pursuing a plan to ban plastic water bottle sales.

Richard Mirick, a water analyst for Pure Water Technologies Inc. in Bozeman, said there is an increased demand for reverse osmosis purifiers to be installed on tap water faucets, but that a complete ban of plastic water bottles wouldn’t work.

“It’s breaking a habit because it’s really easy to buy a bottle,” Mirick said. “The perception is that you are denying them purified water instead of denying them plastic water bottles.”

However, Meyers and Bozeman town manager Chris Kukulski said it wouldn’t be hard for Bozeman residents to push for a ban. All they would have to do is convince city commissioners through public meeting comment to consider this ban, or petition to have a ban placed on a ballot for the next election.

Whether it would pass remains to be seen: perhaps Bozeman will have to wait for its own Jean Hill to figure out.