Ban the Bottle or Preserve Our Liberty? Concord Bans the Sale of Certain Plastic Water Bottles

This may not be the most earth-shattering stories reported in this space, but it is a Massachusetts story, and the rhetoric surrounding the issue is sufficiently noteworthy that I thought I would, er, note it. Concord, Massachusetts, has apparently become the first community in the nation to ban the sale of certain plastic water bottles.

According to the Boston Globe, the ban was championed by Concord resident Jean Hill, who was quoted as saying “I hope other towns will follow. I feel bottled water is a waste of money.” Actually agree with Ms. Hill that bottled water is a waste of money. I also agree that the sale of bottled water creates externalities (e.g., carbon emissions from transporting the bottles and the cost of disposal or recycling) that aren’t captured in the price. However, to the best of my knowledge, we do not traditionally ban the sale of products that are a waste of money. That is about as slippery a slope as one could imagine.

On the other hand, according to NBCNews.com, the International Bottled Water Association used some fairly purple prose in its statement opposing the ban.

This ban deprives residents of the option to choose their choice of beverage and visitors, who come to this birthplace of American independence, a basic freedom gifted to them by the actions in this town more than 200 years ago.

Little did the famous Minutemen of 1776 know that more than 200 years after the shots heard round the world, their efforts to throw off the yoke of King George and protect Americans’ freedom to drink bottled water would be so casually tossed aside by later generations in the birthplace of freedom.

The silliness of proponents and opponents aside, the ban raises issues worth discussion. One is whether these issues should be decided at a local level. Another is whether such bans make any sense. As noted above, I hate bottled water. (I should acknowledge that our firm represents the MWRA, purveyor of one of the finest products of any public drinking water supplier in the US). Its use does impose externalities. However, we don’t normally ban products unless/until they impose substantially more costs than small plastic water bottles. Why couldn’t we just impose a tax to reflect the externalities? What a thought! If it works on plastic water bottles, we could then try it on carbon emissions.

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