Citizens petition seeks to ban single-use water bottles/ Credit: Needham Observer

Town Meeting will vote in May on a controversial bylaw proposal banning the sale of single-use water bottles and other plastic products in town.

Citing both environmental and public health concerns, Green Needham members Kathy Raiz and Rob Fernandez have submitted a citizens’ petition prohibiting food and retail establishments from using Styrofoam packaging as well as single-use plastic straws, stirrers and splash guards as of Jan. 1, 2025. A ban on single-use water bottles would take effect on Jan. 1, 2026.

The inclusion of water bottles has drawn objections from Greg Reibman, president and CEO of the Charles River Chamber, who feels local small business owners will bear a disproportionate burden in complying with that aspect of the bylaw.

“We don’t, as a chamber, like to go before Town Meeting and oppose something that’s good for our environment,” Reibman said. “But for the benefit of our small businesses, I feel that’s something we might have to do.”

At Special Town Meeting last fall, Raiz and Fernandez gained near unanimous approval for a bylaw banning single-use plastic bags. That bylaw went into effect on Jan. 1 for larger retailers and will extend to all retailers on July 1. Their current petition is driven by the same underlying concern for plastic’s negative impacts on the environment.

“Plastic has become a huge issue, not only from an environmental and climate standpoint, but also from a human health standpoint,” said Raiz. “The focus is really on reducing single-use plastics, which are the biggest contributor and the biggest driver to these issues.”

The environmental case against single-use plastic bottles is that they require large amounts of fossil fuels to produce, clog landfills and end up as litter. Raiz and Fernandez point to data that shows water bottles are recycled at a far lower rate than carbonated beverage containers, partly due to bottle bill laws that provide refunds for carbonated beverages but not water bottles.

More recently, concerns have been raised about harmful effects of microplastics in bottled water. “There have been so many studies done on the number of microplastics in water bottles. There are about 60 times more microplastics in a plastic water bottle than in tap water.”

“When we consume them, those nanoplastics can actually move into human cells and they can harm the endocrine system, the reproductive system, and they could potentially lead to different cancers. So it’s not healthy to be drinking water out of a water bottle.”

A decade of bans

Concord became the first community in the country to ban single-use water bottles back in 2013. Since then, more than two dozen communities in Massachusetts have initiated bans, although some have reversed those actions. 

There has also been a national backlash to the imposition of bans, with at least 19 states having adopted preemptive laws that block a range of plastic bans from even being proposed.

Jill Culora, spokesperson for the International Bottled Water Association, has called bans on water bottles a shortsighted action that has negative health and environmental consequences and may not be in the public interest.

She points to public health studies that showed if bottled water is not available, 70 percent of consumers would choose another less healthy packaged drink, a notion echoed by Jay Spencer, owner of French Press Bakery & Café on Chapel Street.

“Water bottles have the benefit of two things,” said Spencer. “One is it’s the most nutritional beverage that you can buy at almost any location when you go and look upon the items that are available to purchase.

“And the funding that comes from the sale of water bottles allows an independent restaurant to invest in other items that are far more expensive, in order to be great.”

Spencer says French Press does not use Styrofoam, hasn’t used straws in more than two years and has never used plastic bags.

“We’re always looking at ways to reduce our footprint. I can buy a Styrofoam container case for about 17 bucks, but I’ll pay 40 bucks for my molded fiber compostable containers. And we do that because it’s better for the environment.”

Steve Volante, an owner of Volante Farms, says, “The issue is what’s the reasonable and readily sourced alternative.

“Say you do 400 takeout orders a day. If you only have to put in cutlery for a quarter of those, it’s a significant savings over the course of the year.”

Raiz and Fernandez say they understand all those considerations and point to the 2026 implementation date as evidence of their concern.

“It absolutely is a concern,” said Fernandez. “We 100% want to work with the businesses, not against them, and support them in finding alternatives that are good for everyone.

“We certainly value our neighbors and friends who are restaurateurs. We don’t want to do harm. But we do believe that there are alternatives and there might be a solution that can work for everyone.”

Reibman says the problem is there really aren’t any viable alternatives at present, noting that water packaged in aluminum cans or boxed water are cost prohibitive. He does say expanding the state’s bottle bill to include water bottles would help incentivize recycling, but the state Legislature has balked at that move.

Fernandez, Raiz and Reibman all said they are open to further conversation on the topic.

“We can look together for more data to get facts on what is actually happening in other towns that have passed the ban,” said Fernandez. “And if it’s detrimental, then there’s the potential of modifying the petition or pushing it off for a later date. Those are all definitely options that are available to us.”

 Save as PDF

Click here to go Home