CONCORD — On a spring night in 2012, Janet Rothrock stood up at a sharply divided Town Meeting and vowed that if her neighbors joined her in approving the nation’s first municipal ban on the sale of single-use water bottles, their vote would send a stark message to the world.
Victory, she and other environmental advocates hoped, would spur other towns, states, and ultimately nations to issue similar bans — perhaps ultimately mounting enough pressure on the powerful bottling industry to force change.
“By being the first in the world, we were making a statement — setting an example and showing the way,” said Rothrock, now 72.
Concord passed the ban, and now 10 years after it took effect, it’s clear the bylaw did, indeed, help trigger a wave of legislative action. But it wasn’t exactly what Rothrock and her fellow activists had hoped for.
While a smattering of towns in Massachusetts and elsewhere have since adopted plastic bottle bans — some going even further than Concord’s — others veered in the opposite direction, approving laws that block a range of plastic bans before they’re even proposed. At least nineteen states have now adopted such preemptive laws, with plastic emerging as another front in the nation’s seething culture wars.
“The vote in Concord certainly had an impact — not all intended,” said Susan Collins, president of the Container Recycling Institute, a California group that monitors the industry and promotes recycling.
The division has grown more stark as scientists and environmental advocates have raised increasingly urgent alarms about plastic as not only a growing pollution problem but as a significant threat to the climate. Greenhouse gasses are produced during the manufacturing of plastic, and the plastic itself emits them after it’s thrown away.
A decade after the controversial bylaw took effect in Concord, plastic pollution has only grown worse nationally, with the industry producing record numbers of single-use plastic bottles, which require large amounts of fossil fuels to produce, clog landfills, and end up as litter. The Container Recycling Institute estimates that more than 86 billion plastic water bottles were sold in the United States in 2021 — nearly 30 times the number sold annually during the 1990s.
The United Nations Environment Program has called plastic waste “one of the biggest environmental scourges of our time,” while the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine has estimated about 8 million metric tons of plastic enters the world’s oceans every year — the equivalent of dumping a garbage truck full of plastic waste every minute.
Since Concord’s bylaw took effect, some communities have sought to address the problem. Two dozen other towns in Massachusetts — more than half of them on Cape Cod — passed similar kinds of rules, including Arlington, which last fall became the state’s most recent community to ban the sale of single-use water bottles.
Other communities in the state have approved measures far more comprehensive than Concord’s, such as West Tisbury and other towns on Martha’s Vineyard, which have banned the sale of all single-serving plastic beverage containers, including sports drinks and carbonated beverages. Seven communities in Massachusetts have also banned the sale of alcoholic beverages in the small plastic bottles known as nips.
To varying degrees, communities beyond the Bay State have taken similar action, as have some universities, airports, stadiums, and federal agencies, including the Interior Department, which last year promised to end the sale of single-use plastic products at national parks and on other public lands by 2032.
Over the past decade, large bottling companies have also acknowledged their pollution. For example, Nestle, the world’s largest producer of bottled water, has pledged to make nearly all of its packaging recyclable and reduce by one-third its use of newly made plastic by 2025.
Moreover, California and several other states have passed laws that will require bottling companies to increase the amount of recycled plastic used in their products over the coming years.
“The value of [Concord] setting a precedent for other towns to follow cannot be underestimated,” said Jenny Gitlitz, director of solutions at Beyond Plastics, a Vermont national advocacy group that seeks to reduce plastic pollution.
Concord’s vote had an “inspirational effect,” she said, in her Berkshires’ town of Dalton, which banned the use of single-use plastic bags in 2017. “Early adopters are critical to start the ball rolling,” she said.
Still, the backlash has been potent. In Arizona, for example, a 2016 law made it illegal for any community there to ban, tax, or assess a fee on “auxiliary containers,” which include plastic bottles, bags, and disposable containers, such as Styrofoam take-out boxes.
Such laws have been supported by the bottling industry, which vigorously opposed Concord’s ban 10 years ago, sending leaflets to town residents that called the ban an attack on consumer freedom. They also said it would lead more people to drink less healthy beverages.
“Banning or restricting the sale of bottled water directly impacts the right of people to choose the healthiest beverage on the shelf,” said Jill Culora, a spokeswoman for the International Bottled Water Association, a Virginia trade group for the industry.
She contends bans on bottled water actually increase the amount of plastic pollution, by nudging consumers toward soda and sports drinks, which often require more plastic due to carbonation and manufacturing standards.
The banning of bottled water throughout much of Cape Cod has led to a backlash in three towns — Dennis, Mashpee, and Sandwich — each of which has rescinded their bylaws.
In Sandwich, Town Meeting residents went back and forth on the issue, with a ban on all sales of bottled water repealed two years ago, just before the bylaw was to take effect. An effort to reinstate the ban last year failed.
“There was a feeling that it was unfair that different towns had different restrictions, and that it would make more sense and be more consistent if the state took action,” said Bud Dunham, Sandwich’s town manager.
Governor Maura Healey’s newly appointed climate chief, Melissa Hoffer, declined to say whether the administration would support a statewide ban on the sale of plastic water bottles, though she acknowledged the production and waste from plastic “are harmful to our climate, environment, and public health.”
“Our administration looks forward to partnering with legislators, scientific and public health experts, and advocates to find ways to reduce single-use plastics and promote the development of truly biodegradable alternatives,” she said.
On Cape Cod, Madhavi Venkatesan, executive director of the environmental group Sustainable Practices, has plans to push a slew of new bylaws that would ban plastic take-out containers.
“In the towns where the ban was rescinded, the focus was on individual rights rather than the best interest of the community,” Venkatesan said. “This is very telling of why community is needed, if we are to address the environmental issues that have become existential threats.”
In Concord, where tensions divided residents for years, town officials say they now hear few complaints about the ban.
If residents want a single-use container of water, they can find a brand of boxed water in a range of local establishments, including the gift shop at Walden Pond. They can also find reusable bottles for sale everywhere from the historic town’s visitor’s center to the local hardware store.
Even old foes of the ban have softened their opposition.
For years, John Cummings, who has served as manager for more than three decades at Crosby’s Marketplace, the town’s supermarket, opposed the ban, arguing it was unfair and bad for business. Nearby competitors in Acton and Bedford, he said, began luring his customers across town lines with specials on cases of bottled water.
“It definitely affected business,” Cummings said.
But that impact, especially since the start of the pandemic, is no longer felt acutely, and the supermarket even decided to install a new water dispenser for reusable bottles.
“On a personal level, I 100 percent understand why the ban makes sense,” said Cummings, who still thinks it would be fairer to have a statewide or federal ban. “But from our standpoint, it’s no longer a concern. It’s a dead issue.”
For Janet Rothrock, the fight continues.
She wants Concord to expand its ban to other plastic bottles, describing the existing bylaw as “archaic.”
When asked if she thought the town’s landmark vote a decade ago lived up to her expectations, she said she had mixed feelings.
“It takes people a long time to change their habits, and we’re up against an industry with deep pockets,” she said.