Will Coggin

In the past few months, Americans have struggled with devastating ice storms, blizzards, and tornados that left millions of families without clean water or electricity.

These disasters were an unexpected reminder to many families that they can never be too prepared for an emergency. And as FEMA notes, a key supply in every emergency kit is bottled water. In fact, the agency recommends each family have enough bottled water to give each person in their household one gallon per person, per day, with enough to last two weeks.

Bottled water is an essential product. Lawmakers in Augusta, however, are seeking to outlaw the sale of standard water bottles as part of their effort to reduce plastic waste. This policy isn’t just shortsighted, it’s dangerous.

Maine faces two significant threats to its tap water supply: hurricanes and freezing temperatures. Hurricanes and the resulting floods can knock out power to water treatment facilities and leave cities without clean water. While direct hurricane hits are rare in Maine, it was also rare for Texas to have a winter storm. But it happened, and more than 15 million Texans were left without safe water.

Maine’s freezing temperatures are also a threat to the tap water supply because pipelines and water mains can burst. When a water main bursts and loses pressure, families can be left without access to tap water for days, if not weeks. Residents in Maine should be especially concerned about water main breaks because the state’s infrastructure received a C-minus grade from the Americans Society of Civil Engineers. According to the report, Maine will need to invest $59 million per year for the next 20 years to fix its drinking water system.

Bottom line: Families in Maine need access to clean water that can be stored. Even supporters of the bottled water ban agreed.

Environmental/Natural Resources Chair Sen. Stacy Brenner noted that families need packaged water, but she suggested families switch to “boxed water or aluminum cans.” If the point of banning plastic bottles is to save the environment, it’s clear Brenner’s recommendations won’t help.

Aluminum is sourced from bauxite mines which are devastating to the local environments where it is dug up overseas. Cartons are less recyclable than plastic and they will increase the demand for harvested trees. Cartons cannot be recycled into new cartons, while plastic bottles can become plastic bottles again. According to the Department of Environmental Protection Maine significantly outperforms the nation in recycling with 75-87% of all plastic water bottles sold in Maine being recycled.

And while we can all agree on the goals for protecting the environment, there are real tradeoffs from “one size fits all” templates. Not all plastics are created equal.

Bottled water is an essential plastic product. Water bottles, like vaccine syringes, masks, or gloves, are plastic products that keep people safe and healthy. Plastic food wrap is another example — it keeps food fresh and reduces the risk of spoilage (and food waste). Some plastics may be derided as “single-use,” but they have essential benefits for society, and many can be fully recycled when properly discarded.

Products like plastic straws and stirrers are not essential. They are easily substituted and demand our focus for a solution. Everyone wants a clean environment, but dividing plastics into “good” and “bad” categories based on whether they are single-use is a recipe for disaster. Lawmakers must avoid banning products without considering their function and societal value. Simply banning single-use plastic products will result in significant unintended consequences for Maine.

Will Coggin is the managing director of the Essential Plastics Coalition, based out of Washington, D.C.

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