The Bottle Battle of Concord

The 85-year-old star of this environmental documentary reminds us that it’s never too late to revolt against plastic waste.

January 25, 2016

Every once in a while, an event comes along that triggers a revolution. For Jean Hill of Concord, Massachusetts, that moment came when she saw photographs of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and learned that each year Americans purchase more than 50 billion bottles of water while recycling only about a third of them. That’s when this tenacious octogenarian says she fired “the second shot heard round the world” by organizing an effort to ban single-serving plastic water containers from her historic town.

“Bottled water is the poster child for unsustainability,” explains Jill Appel, a fellow Concord resident who helped Hill lead the bottled water ban. “Even when you can make a small change, that small change can help.”

Hill and Appel’s battle for a cleaner, greener Concord is the subject of Divide in Concord, a feature-length film directed by Kris Kaczor. (The documentary is available for purchase as an iTunes download or on DVD.)

Concord’s most famous son, Henry David Thoreau, surely would have waved a flag in support of ending such an environmentally destructive practice, but the town’s current 17,000 inhabitants were split on the issue. Some said the ban would be an assault on consumer freedom, while others called for an end to America’s adopted “culture of consumerism and waste.”

The film follows the activities of the small grassroots group that spent years canvassing door-to-door and cold-calling skeptical neighbors and business owners to discuss why the ban was needed. Major media outlets eventually took notice; so did the International Bottled Water Association, which for obvious reasons fought back by flooding the town with leaflets and ads extolling the virtues of convenience and personal choice.

It took them three years and a series of close votes at town meetings, but Hill and her supporters finally prevailed in 2012 when Concord enacted the country’s first community-wide plastic water bottle ban. Two years later, San Francisco passed an ordinance prohibiting the sale of plastic water bottles on city-owned property.

Hill hopes her victory will continue to spread across the nation. Concord, after all, has a knack for sparking revolutions. 

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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