In recent months, voters in several Cape Cod towns have made moves that could signal a sea change in the direction of environmental policy.
The Cape Cod region is one of several areas throughout the United States that has been roped into a piecemeal policy on plastic regulations that targets a single product at a time. They’ve faced round after round of bans on individual plastic items, starting with straws and bags and progressing to plastic liquor airplane bottles and eventually bottled water.
Like the proverbial frog in a pot of water, environmentalists have slowly been turning up the heat on plastic. But this strategy is ineffective and promotes alternatives that are worse for the environment. The frogs are jumping off the stove. Voters in this very blue state have caught on to the scam and they’re not happy about it.
Consider the town of Mashpee. In October 2021, the initial vote to ban the sale of bottled water was held outside, after dark, when the temperature was 57 degrees. Just 215 people showed up to vote. During the 90-minute meeting, the city voted to ban the sale of plastic bottled water by a margin of just two votes — 104 to 102.
When Mashpee residents realized what had happened, they immediately took steps to repeal the ban. By April 2022, the ban was repealed by a vote of 221 to 155. More people voted to repeal the ban than those who attended the initial meeting.
Similar events have unfolded in other cities throughout Cape Cod.
Earlier this month, residents in Dennis voted to repeal a ban that had already taken effect. In November, voters in Sandwich chose to repeal a bottle ban that was set to take effect in December. And then reaffirmed that vote in April after environmentalists took another shot at reimplementing the ban. Similar bans in Yarmouth, Attleboro and Bourne have either failed or been postponed indefinitely.
The message from voters has been clear: Banning plastic bottled water isn’t the answer to environmental concerns.
The data show that alternatives to plastic bottles — glass, cans or boxes — carry serious environmental risks of their own.
Glass bottles are very energy-intensive to produce. A study from Imperial College London revealed that a large-scale shift from plastic bottles to glass would cause additional greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to 22 large coal-fired power plants.
Aluminum is sourced from bauxite strip mines — a practice so dirty it has caused riots in third-world countries. Carving bauxite out of the ground leaves communities covered in red dust that kills vegetation, destroys family farms and harms the health of those left to breathe in the toxic particles. Aluminum production also contributes twice as much carbon dioxide as plastic.
Cartons used in boxed water packages are made from layers of plastic, glue and aluminum making them difficult to recycle — unlike plastic bottles. According to Denmark’s Environmental Protection Agency, it’s better for the planet for cartons to be incinerated than recycled.
None of these alternatives have a clear environmental leg up on plastic — especially not one worth the added costs to local businesses and consumers.
But no matter what package consumers choose, it’s important to understand that the plastic in the ocean is largely not from American consumers. Less than one percent of the mismanaged trash can be traced back to the United States. More than 90% can be traced back to 10 rivers in Africa or Asia.
And if there are plastic bottles littering Cape Cod beaches, that’s not a plastic problem. It’s a people problem. According to a litter survey by Keep America Beautiful, aluminum beverage cans were spotted nearly five times more often than littered water bottles.
Those pushing the bottle bans throughout Cape Cod did not have the data on their side. Uneducated environmental activists used cold weather, outdoor votes and whatever other polling tactics available to gain their agenda.
But the facts have overwhelmed the false narratives. Voters are pouring cold water on the bottle bans.
• Richard Berman is president of Berman and Co. in Washington.