Wednesday, January 2, 2013

A world of ban-happy busybodies

With the start of the New Year, a new law goes into effect in the venerable town of Concord, Massachusetts (population 17,668). Famed for its place in the history if the Revolutionary War, for being the town Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau called home (when the latter was not off playing in the woods), and for being the birthplace of the Concord grape, Concord has now become the first municipality in the United States to ban the sale of water in plastic bottles.

No joke. In Concord, selling a single-serving bottle of water is now illegal. Doing so can result in a fine ($25 first time, $50 each additional time). Here's the full law:
Section 1. Sale of Drinking Water in Single-Serving PET Bottles
It shall be unlawful to sell non-sparkling, unflavored drinking water in single-serving polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles of 1 liter (34 ounces) or less in the Town of Concord on or after January 1, 2013. 
 
Section 2. Exemption for Emergencies 
Sales occurring subsequent to a declaration of an emergency adversely affecting the availability and/or quality of drinking water to Concord residents by the Emergency Management Director or other duly-authorized Town, Commonwealth or United States official shall be exempt from this Bylaw until seven days after such declaration has ended. 
 
Section 3. Enforcement Process 
Enforcement of this Bylaw shall be the responsibility of the Town Manager or his/her designee. The Town Manager shall determine the inspection process to be followed, incorporating the process into other town duties as appropriate. Any establishment conducting sales in violation of this Bylaw shall be subject to a non-criminal disposition fine as specified in Appendix A of the Regulations for the Enforcement of Town Bylaws under M.G.L. Chapter 40, §21D and the Bylaw for Non-Criminal Disposition of Violations adopted under Article 47 of the 1984 Town Meeting, as amended. Any such fines shall be paid to the Town of Concord. 
 
Section 4. Suspension of the Bylaw 
If the Town Manager determines that the cost of implementing and enforcing this Bylaw has become unreasonable, then the Town Manager shall so advise the Board of Selectmen and the Board of Selectmen shall conduct a Public Hearing to inform the citizens of such costs. Subsequent to the Public Hearing, the Board of Selectmen may continue this Bylaw in force or may suspend it permanently or for such length of time as they may determine. And to amend Appendix A of the Non-Criminal Disposition Bylaw by adding the following:
Appendix A goes on to establish the fine levels already noted, above. And from what I can glean, the Town Manager has to set up some sort of "inspection process" for businesses in the town. Perhaps this duty can be added on to those of Concord's "Mattress Police." The town must have some of those, right?

I joke because this is just so utterly stupid, it's hard to fathom how it came to be an actual law. The push for this was spearheaded by someone named Jean Hill, an 84-year old resident who has been at it for over two years. She can hardly be held wholly responsible for this nonsense, given that the town council and ultimately a sufficient number of residents agreed with the idea. Still, her rationale for the ban is worth noting:
...What I'm trying to do with this Bylaw is to increase the barriers to buying single-serve bottled water because in order to help people change, you need to put policies in place that steer them away from buying bottled water and toward considering the many other good alternatives. This, I hope, will make people stop and think before grabbing that bottle of water.
And what's wrong with bottled water? Well:
...Bottled water has so many problems that it is time to do something meaningful about it. It is an enormous waste of resources; it pollutes our waterways and harms wildlife; it contributes to global warming; it harms local communities; it is NOT safer than our own water; it is just not right. Enough is enough. 
Also, bottled water doesn’t fit with our community values. We’re a smart community of people who cannot be tricked by clever marketing. And we are not willing to put convenience ahead of our concern for the near and long-term consequences of bottled water.
So in her mind, the point of the law is to "help people change" their bad behavior. Sounds like a lot of other bans, doesn't it? But in this case, that bad behavior is choosing to buy a bottle of water. Not a bottle of pop, not a bottle of liquor (incidentally, Ms. Hill admits to being a big Scotch drinker), not a pack of smokes, not even a baggie of heroin. A bottle of water. And sure, part of it is an objection to the use of plastic. But lots of other things are made of plastic. And lots of other things that can be harmful to the environment and/or to people's health come in plastic containers. The focus on bottles of water to combat the use of plastic thus makes little sense.

Which brings us to her second--and I think primary--objection: she doesn't think water should be sold as a commodity [my boldface]:
Bottled water is much more than a recycling issue. Even if we recycled all bottles, bottled water would still cause harm to the environment in the form of fossil fuel use and carbon dioxide emissions. And bottled water would still be a virtually unregulated, costly and unjust product.
I understand that many people think selling water is ludicrous, that it is even laughable. Who would actually pay money for something that is next to free when it comes out of a tap? My grandmother--born and raised in the mountains of Virginia--would laugh at the idea of paying for water in a bottle. Of course, she wouldn't drink municipal tap water on a bet; every time she traveled anywhere, she would fill her trunk with gallon jugs of water from her well.

But obviously, some people like the idea of bottled water. Many of them choose it as a more health-conscious alternative to a bottle of pop or the like when they're looking to quench their thirst. This is particularly true of people traveling, and with this is mind it is exceedingly odd that a town which enjoys a fair amount of tourism would choose to so limit the choices of tourists.

And the idea that bottled water "doesn't fit with [Concord's] community values" is nonsensical. If this were actually true, there would be no need for the ban, as this "smart community" would naturally avoid such things (assuming bottled water really was a bad choice).

So what we really have here are some people who think they know better than everyone else, who have decided to limit the choices of others for essentially indefensible reasons, who look down their noses at people who disagree, and who are determined to change other people for their supposed own good. In short, a bunch of snobbish busybodies.

And yet, they have effectively swayed enough public opinion to co-opt their local legislative processes in service to their own selfish goals. I can't help but wonder what Emerson and Thoreau would say about all of this...

Cheers, all.