Great Barrington, MA, home to AIER since after the second world war, just banned plastic water bottles. At a special town meeting on August 6, citizens voted to ban the sale of “single-use” water bottles less than one liter in size. We’re the fourth town in the U.S. to make such a move, which was spearheaded by a local environmental group, wanting to take the lead in stemming the global tide of plastic waste.
But set aside whatever environmental views you have, hard as that may be. What’s happening here in Great Barrington is about a sizable group of people who consider something a problem and care enough to invest time and resources to address it. Did they address it in the right way?
The Anatomy of a Ban
The problem is the deeply engrained assumption that when we see something we don’t like, the best solution is to get the government to ban it. This locks us into a zero-sum game, where we direct lots of time, energy, and money into winner-take-all arguments over elections and government policy. The victors are rewarded, the vanquished embittered.
Proponents of the bottle ban in Great Barrington concede that our small town alone won’t make much difference in the number of bottles in American landfills but want to be at the vanguard of a movement of similar bans across the country. If such a movement gained steam, the political battles would become far costlier, as bottled water producers and chain convenience stores entered the fray.
Far-reaching bans would be won, if at all, at a high cost of campaigning and lobbying. And all the other plastic products we throw out would still be in our landfills.
Then there’s enacting the ban. Prohibition of pretty much anything has an abysmal record in this country. So there are enforcement costs. Probably not so big in our quiet town of 7,000, but that changes when we think about such a ban going state-wide or even national.
Then come all the pesky details—like people switching to other drinks, maybe even sugary sodas. We don’t want that. And maybe we should make some exceptions to the rule. As larger cities adopt the ban, shouldn’t we worry about water at big sporting events and concerts? A coalition of event promoters and water bottlers would certainly think so, and spend more money and time trying to convince us.
We’re left with a rule that’s polarizing, constrains peoples’ behavior rather than changing it, must be enforced, and can be manipulated by corporate interests. Whether or not plastic in landfills has successfully been reduced, we’ve added yet another layer of prohibition to the convoluted, wasteful and punitive mess with which we govern ourselves.
Rethinking “Doing Something”
Time and time again, I’ve heard people arguing for bans or other heavy-handed policies at all levels of government say, “but we have to do something.” I’d like to invite everyone of all political stripes to step back and question their assumption of what “doing something” means.
What if people concerned about growing plastic waste took the money and time that a national fight for a ban would require and did something else? They could launch grassroots campaigns handing out reusable bottles, start plastic bottle buyback programs for recycling, and connect with like-minded people around the world to develop and exchange ideas undoubtedly cleverer than mine.
It wouldn’t eliminate small plastic bottles in our landfills, but there would be a lot of resources backing the initiative and the impact could be significant. Moreover, it would be far more robust than any law that could be chiseled away by lobbyists and blown up by future politicians. And it would avoid resources wasted on all-or-nothing political battles that seem to dominate our culture.
Great Barrington, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down
I’m a proponent of government becoming more local, even if I don’t like what some localities, even my own, would choose to do. But we do need to rethink the role bans play in organizing our society.
The voluntary approach I advocate here may seem like small potatoes, but when we apply it to the hundreds of other issues we debate, things get interesting. Then we have cultural change. Then we have a society that starts to be interested in taking care of itself rather than forming teams and competing for government power.
A series of grassroots efforts aimed at individuals wouldn’t have made headlines like a government ban. But it could set an example for an approach that’s both more effective and humane. And wouldn’t that have been a fantastic way for Great Barrington to lead?