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Brookline finds plastic water bottle ban a thorny issue

The Brookline plastic water bottle proposal is modeled on San Francisco’s version.Globe/File/-

Plastic bottles are bad for the environment — on that they agreed.

And creating billions of plastic bottles to hold water, good old H20, is environmentally indefensible when you have clean and clear drinking water pouring out of taps all around. They agreed on that as well.

But in a marathon night of hearings at Brookline Town Hall last Tuesday, there was no agreement as to whether the logical conclusion to these facts was that plastic water bottles should therefore be banned.

Brookline, which has already joined a growing number of communities to ban plastic bags and polystyrene containers, is among the first to wade into water.


Concord made national news in 2012 when it banned the sale of single-serving water bottles. And last fall, San Francisco became the first major city to go up against Big Water when it banned plastic water bottles from being sold or distributed on city property or in city buildings, including its schools.

The Brookline proposal is modeled on San Francisco’s version; it proposes a bylaw to sever the relationship between the town and the business of buying and selling water in plastic bottles. Festivals and food trucks, government buildings and schools, anything on public property, would be Bring Your Own Bottle.

“We didn’t have plastic bottles before. It’s just a habit of convenience,” said Jane Gilman, the cochairwoman of the Brookline Town Meeting Caucus, who cosponsored the warrant items, which will go before Town Meeting in May. “We can learn to do without them.”

But as Gilman and her cosponsor, Clint Richmond, found as they took their proposal through hours of meetings before town subcommittees and the Board of Selectmen, they were met with unanimous resistance.

The spirit of the idea was applauded. The environmental awfulness of plastic bottles was beyond reproach; banning them would be the very Brookline thing to do.


But it was in the cascade of consequences that would come from that ban that had many questioning whether it was, in fact, the best thing to do.

Plastic bottles are bad, but isn’t water the best thing sold in them? Wouldn’t taking that option out of the Coke machine lead to more . . . Coke?

And then there were the practical questions, the financial questions, the logistical questions — they went on for hours.

The town’s water, sewer, parks, and open space directors cited the simple fact that Brookline lacks the capacity to serve large amounts of people with large amounts of water. Larz Anderson Park, a popular site for large gatherings, has only one working water fountain. Portable hydration stations could be brought in, but only 25 percent of public venues have water service that could provide an adequate supply of drinking water, and hydration stations are not cheap.

But ultimately, it will be up to Town Meeting voters to decide whether to make the bylaw into a directive to the town. Richmond and Gilman are also sponsoring a second warrant article to require food establishments to make tap water available — without the recommendations of the Health and Human Services Subcommittee or the Board of Selectmen. The concept did not get a single vote from a member of either board. They like the idea, but their statements all revolved around the thought that the idea was not yet fully formed to the point of making it a sensible law.


Richmond and Gilman are armed with a list of reasons plastic bottles are bad. The facts on that side are not up for debate, but “implementing this without a plan to make it work is a way to make it ultimately fail,” said Dr. Alan Balsam, the town’s director of public health and human services, who wanted to see a warrant article that had an educational component, and enforcement component, and the capital budget assigned to fund it.

Balsam said he had met with the heads of the town’s departments and divisions, and said he was struck by the nearly unanimous support for the goals of these warrant articles.

“Everyone wants this to work, and that’s really the rub,” he told the Board of Selectmen. “How do you make this work? Plastic bottles are nasty. Everybody knows that. But plastic bottles bottle lots of stuff. They bottle Coke and Pepsi. They’re nasty, but they bottle a lot of nastier stuff than water.”

RELATED: Cambridge considers ban on polystyrene containers

Billy Baker can be reached at billy.baker@globe.com.