The first city in the U.S. to move on a ban of single-use plastic bottles incited fierce blowback when first proposed in 2014. The initiative, in Concord, Massachusetts drew predictable fire from the International Bottled Water Association. Concord, it protested, had deprived “residents of the right to choose.”
That was supposed to be bizarre, coming in a patch known as the birthplace of American liberty and freedom. It would lead to bad things, the association warned with a straight face. Residents might start consuming more harmful stuff instead, like sugar and caffeine, bringing down on Concord the wrath of “additives and greater environmental impacts than bottled water.”
The plastic bottle industry group might want to forget about visiting San Francisco. Starting on Aug. 20, the city’s airport (SFO) will become the first major city airport in the U.S. to rid plastic water bottles from its cafes, restaurants and shops.
The ban doesn’t affect flavored water or juices, but it could be a major boost to initiatives to do away with the use of a substance that some say contains the neurotoxin BPA and takes over 450 years to decompose. San Franciscans are up close to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a legendary collection of plastic in that ocean that by 2050 may harbor more plastic than fish.
The SFO move is mild. It doesn’t affect anything but water, and comes amidst growing awareness that widely-advertised bottled water carries little more than an illusion of purity, falls under little regulation, and can be easily duplicated by adding a filter to your faucet.
The ordinance, a move by the City of San Francisco, comes as SFO has installed over 100 “hydration stations” so travelers can refill their own reusable containers. San Francisco began talking about such a ban in 2007. Aspen’s now-mayor Torre mentioned it in 2011 after encountering plastic junk-heaps floating around during a visit to the British Virgin Islands.
Limitations on single-use plastic bottles have been increasing in the last decade. The University of Vermont implemented its move in 2013, and by 2016 nearly 100 high schools, colleges and universities in the world had done so.
Toronto made its move in 2012. So did Brookline, Mass. in 2015. Earlier this year, the movement landed on Cape Cod, Mass., where 10 towns, including Dennis, Falmouth, Yarmouth and Barnstable, will make their moves.
It’s long been an international idea. The University of Leeds in the U.K. made its move in local bars and shops, and the movement’s been spreading through India for most of the last decade.
It takes about eight times as much water as will fit in a bottle of it to make it and the health impacts have long been debated. Plastic also derives from oil, a limited fossil fuel. Some estimates are that it can take nearly 1,000 years for a plastic container to decompose, which means that every bottle made in our lifetimes is still around, unless it’s been incinerated, which produces problems of its own.
Other substitutes, such as aluminum are far more efficient to recycle, though plastic took over as the favored bottle because it’s lighter and cheaper to transport.
The spots implementing plastic bottle bans are moving in bits and pieces. They appear to hope that moves against bottled water will produce similar thinking about containers for juices, flavored waters, sparkling stuff and other substances over time.
Other venues are experimenting with penalties, fearful of inflicting heavy pain upfront. Many moves on plastic water bottles involve large meetings or gatherings involving over 100 guests, where cardboard or other compostable containers are easy to use. Limitations can then spread to other mass venues like sporting events, concerts, road races, festivals and theatrical productions.
Concord began by informally inspecting stores and restaurants. It would issue warnings, then fines. The citations avoided criminal classifications or sanctions.
Tourist meccas attract attention largely because where visitors congregate, trash proliferates (an unusual exception to this rule are the concert-goers’ lawns outside Aspen’s music tent, which patrons manage to leave pristine enough that the crows complain).
Small movements, like municipal moves against plastic or paper grocery bags, take time to catch on. Residents are often suspicious, and complain when town governments legislate such bans, until they realize that the skies will not fall, the sun will also rise, and life will go on. Just as gruesome are conservative groups who create ideological battles about any move to limit freedom or, as they say in the U.S., “liberty.”
The water will continue to flow after Aug. 20 at SFO.