Aluminum water bottles at Needham High School/ Credit: Needham Observer

Following last year’s ban on single-use plastic bags, Needham’s second citizens’ petition on single-use plastics will be voted on at next month’s Town Meeting. 

Filed by residents Kathy Raiz and Rob Fernandez, working with the Green Needham Collaborative, the petition would amend the town’s bylaws to ban dispensing of other single-use plastics by food and beverage establishments as of January 2025:

  • Containers for prepared foods and beverages made of extruded polystyrene such as Styrofoam (excludes raw or butchered meats and fish).
  • Plastic stirrers and splash guards (also called splash sticks) used for hot drinks.
  • Plastic straws, unless requested by the customer.

A more contentious part of the original petition had planned to ban single-use plastic water bottles, including all plastic bottles with 1 liter or less of non-carbonated, non-flavored water, unless needed for safety, health, or emergency situations. 

After receiving feedback from various stakeholders including the Charles River Chamber and smaller restaurants and businesses as well as some residents, the petitioners decided to remove the ban on plastic single-use water bottles and to support a voluntary process separate from the town warrant article.

“It’s not my goal to eliminate all plastic,” said Raiz. “The goal is to get some of the single-use plastics out of the food stream.”

The Needham Board of Health and the Select Board, as well as the Charles River Chamber and several local businesses that responded to a Green Needham poll, expressed support for banning these single-use plastic items, with the exception of single-use plastic water bottles.

Green splash guard that fits into the lid/ Credit: Needham Observer

Unlike plastic stirrers and Styrofoam, which have ready substitutes, alternatives to plastic bottles, such as aluminum or glass, are more costly. And there is a hypothetical concern that rather than buying more expensive water, people may turn to less healthy drinks such as soda. 

Charles River Chamber President Greg Reibman wrote in a recent newsletter that “banning this high-margin item will have a significant financial impact on Needham’s small, independent, fast-casual restaurants and retailers.”

Alternatives to plastic water bottles can cost significantly more.  Public Health Director Tim MacDonald noted that the unit cost of water in plastic bottles is approximately 19 cents, while the cheapest carton or metal can alternative costs from 98 cents  to $1.35 per unit.

Raiz and Fernandez said they plan to “take the next year to educate residents and Town Meeting members about the dangers around plastic; work with Restaurant Depot and other distributors to ensure aluminum and glass options are available; and strongly encourage businesses, in partnership with the chamber, to offer an aluminum water option to patrons.” They will also work with the town to make sure water fountains around the town are functional. 

Plastics such as water bottles are drawing attention for their environmental and health risks. Massachusetts was the first state to ban state agencies from purchasing single use plastic bottles. Plastic water bottle bans are in place in 27 cities and towns across the state. Locally, Needham High School and Pollard Middle School have already switched from plastic water bottles to aluminum cans and the lower grades are using boxed water. 

Prior to the decision to remove plastic water bottles from the Town Meeting warrant, the Select Board had voted 4- 1 to support the petition, while the Finance Committee voted unanimously to oppose it. The Board of Health decided to neither support nor oppose the plastic water bottle ban. 

The plastic problem

Matt DeMarrais (L) and Justin MacGregor at the RTS/ Credit: Needham Observer

Matt DeMarrais, superintendent of the recycling and solid waste division and the recycling transfer station (RTS), said, “If you think of a successful recycling program, it has to be that big circle. A product the consumer purchases, the consumer brings it to us, we send it somewhere to be sorted, they send it to the factory, and then it can be remade into an item back to the consumer. Ideally you want that process to be cyclical.”

“Plastic downgrades every time you process it, so it’s not an infinite loop; [whereas] metal or glass goes around and around. Aluminum is infinitely recyclable, it doesn’t degrade,” he said.

Raiz noted that single-use plastics are a moneymaker. “You see everything wrapped in plastic, sometimes multiple times. That’s the stuff that’s used for a couple of minutes and thrown away.” She described data from the group Beyond Plastics showing that while plastic recycling has declined, plastic waste generated per person has increased by more than 260 percent since 1980. 

DeMarrais says having fewer single-use plastic bottles “wouldn’t be a major issue” for the town RTS. However, “The facilities where they recycle this material, they need to make money. If you take the valuable material out of that stream, it could make them less interested in recycling that material.”

According to Assistant Superintendent of the Recycling and Solid Waste Division Justin MacGregor, the other items in the ban, such as Styrofoam and plastic straws, are not recyclable at the RTS. “We’ve asked residents not to put those in the comingle; it causes them to sort out more stuff that’s not actually recyclable at their facility, so [eliminating] that could be a good thing.”

Matt DeMarrais with plastic recycling at the RTS/ Credit: Needham Observer

Need for good alternatives

 “We’re very lucky to have excellent tap water in our area that’s highly regulated and tested often,” petitioner Raiz said,  “and bringing a reusable aluminum bottle is the absolute best and the cheapest, because our tap water is a few pennies.”

Some people cannot use a refillable water bottle so easily. Ironically, this includes workers at the RTS. “On a 90-degree day, these guys gotta drink liters of water, and it’s a filthy environment …. very dirty, very dusty,” DeMarrais said. “I have the luxury of having an office, so I can use my reusable water, but if I am using my gloves, and I need to drink something, my gloves could be touching a lot of filth. On a summer day, I’m probably gonna use bottled water. It’s not a convenience, it’s a health issue.”

“I totally recognize that there’s very little options for consumers,” Raiz said, “and that’s when we start to put more pressure on extended producer responsibility, pushing back and causing legislation changes.” 

“I would like to think that phasing out some of these items, it’s a small dent in the overall problem, but I think anything helps,” said Fernandez.

Dr. Jennifer Tirnauer is a physician

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