Raising a glass to SLO’s proposed ban on plastic bottles

Bottles of water in a vending machine at the Concord-Carlisle High School in Concord, Mass., in 2010.
Bottles of water in a vending machine at the Concord-Carlisle High School in Concord, Mass., in 2010. The New York Times

As modern conveniences go, plastic bottles are marvels. They are light, inexpensive and portable, but our growing habit of twisting open a new bottle every time we’re thirsty is eating up energy in production and transportation and creating a mountain of waste, because most bottles never make it to a recycling facility.

For those reasons, we support the San Luis Obispo City Council’s proposal to impose what would amount to a partial ban on the sale of all drinks — not just water — that come in single-use plastic bottles.

Under the proposal, the city would no longer purchase bottled drinks for its own use, and they could no longer be sold at city facilities or at events that require a city permit, such as the Downtown SLO Farmers Market. To encourage the use of reusable containers, the city also would increase the number of water “filling stations.”

To some degree, the ban would be a symbolic step — bottled drinks could still be sold at convenience stores, markets and other retail outlets — but it would draw attention to the growing problem of plastic litter, and it could inspire a larger movement.

Critics, of course, already are grumbling about over-regulation, just as they did when plastic shopping bags were outlawed.

Let them.

About 40 percent of the 13 million plastic bottles sold in San Luis Obispo are recycled.

Statistics speak for themselves: Although plastic water bottles can be recycled, most of them aren’t. In the city of San Luis Obispo, 13 million plastic bottles were purchased in 2015-16, and only 41 percent were recycled. The U.S. rate of recycling plastic bottles is even more dismal — just more than 31 percent in 2015, according to the Association of Plastic Recyclers. That’s the lowest nationwide rate for beverage containers; the rate of recycling for aluminum cans was 54.5 percent in 2015 and glass was 41.3 percent.

To cut down on plastic waste, a handful of other cities, as well as some high schools, universities and national parks, already have full or partial bans on the sale of plastic water bottles.

San Luis Obispo, though, could be the first to expand restrictions to include sodas, iced tea, juice, sports drinks and all other beverages in plastic bottles.

From a public health standpoint, that makes sense. Elsewhere, bottled-water bans have driven consumers to less healthy choices, such as soda.

One example: The University of Vermont outlawed the sale of bottled water in 2013. A subsequent study found that sales of beverages in plastic bottles increased by 6 percent after the bottled-water ban took effect. Instead of switching to water in refillable containers, students were drinking less healthy beverages.

Besides, if plastic bottles are bad for the environment, what difference does it make if they hold soda or water or juice or tea? It doesn’t.

Giving up plastic bottles is not a huge sacrifice, but without a little nudge, many of us won’t break the habit.

We commend the city of San Luis Obispo for once again showing leadership in tackling an environmental and public health issue, as it did in 1990 when it became the first city in the nation to ban smoking in bars, restaurants and shops. We urge the City Council to move forward with proposed restrictions on single-use plastic bottles.

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