Are we ready to ban those litter-producing water bottles?

Mícheál Ó Coileáin Environmental Awareness Officer, Kerry County Council

IT might be hard to believe in this day and age, but plastic as a packaging material for beverages, in particular for water, has had a short history in Ireland. Prior to the 1980s, our shops simply did not have plastic bottles of drinking water and this was no bad thing.

The pollution caused by the illegal disposal of plastic bottles of all kinds in the past 30 years has been hugely damaging for both environmental and aesthetic reasons. Drastic plastic can be found in every corner of Kerry - on land, river and sea. We are not certain how long it takes for plastic water bottles to decompose, but we are certainly looking at up to 800 years for some plastics - and maybe even longer. While we do recycle millions of plastic bottles each year, this is not an ideal solution as it has to be transported to China where it is then recycled and returned to use in another form.

Could we survive without using so much plastic packaging? Instead of recycling it, try living without it. Some towns in the US and Australia have introduced a ban on the sale of certain plastic bottles, with some success. The US town of Concord in Massachusetts has banned the sale of bottled water in units smaller than one litre. The law came into effect on January 1 of this year following a three-year campaign to reduce waste and encourage tap water use. First offenders will get a warning. Anyone caught selling the banned bottles a second time will be fined $25 with a $50 fine for further offences. The Australian town of Bundanoon introduced a complete ban on bottled water in 2009. More than 90 universities in the US and others around the world have already restricted the sale of plastic bottles, as have some local government authorities, so a precedent has been set.

Concord has not introduced any restrictions on the sale of small bottles of other drinks and the bylaw has an exemption in case of emergencies. Campaigners say Americans consume 50 billion small bottles of water each year. The bottled water industry says the small bottles are essential to modern life and encourage people to live healthier lifestyles.

However, Jean Hill, who led the campaign for the ban in Concord, told the New York Times: "What I'm trying to do with this bylaw is to increase the barriers to buying single-serve bottled water... 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."

Some of the town's residents argue the ban is pointless, as they can go down the road and buy small bottles from shops in neighbouring towns. Ms Hill, however, says she was inspired to begin her campaign by her grandson, who told her about a vast floating island of plastic waste in the Pacific Ocean. Down Under, in the town of Bundanoon, the local campaigners had to convince shop owners that a ban on all plastic bottles of water would be of long term benefit to them and the wider community. They argued that the sale of refillable bottles, the increased tourism and increased support (by way of money across the counter) from the local community would more than make up for any loss of revenue. Their plan was to make public drinking water more available than ever before. They did this by installing four attractive refilling stations and water fountains across the town, including one at the local primary school. Also, many businesses installed chilled, filtered water units in their shops, cafes etc. Bundanoon officially went bottled-water-free in September 2009. Is there any town in Kerry ready for the changeover yet?

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