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The Bottled Water Backlash

The bottled water industry is on the defensive as restaurant owners and cities are canceling their bottled water contracts and advocating for tap.
 
 
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At Bella Luna Restaurant in Boston's funky Jamaica Plain neighborhood, you'll find star-shaped paper lanterns hanging from the ceiling and gourmet pizzas named after Red Sox players. Downstairs, the attached Milky Way Lounge & Lanes boasts a seven-lane bowling alley and a Latin dance night on Saturdays.

But there is one thing you won't find at either venue: bottled water.

The pledge caps a summer of organizing that has seen the backlash against bottled water go mainstream. Bella Luna isn't the only restaurant to ban bottled water from its menu. The movement burst into public view this spring when chef Alice Waters, the godmother of "California cuisine," nixed bottled water from her Berkeley, Calif., restaurant Chez Panisse. Soon after, Food Network favorite Mario Batali followed suit at his empire of restaurants including Manhattan's swish Del Posto, serving filtered tap water in glasses etched with information on the harmful environmental impact of bottled water

Then cities -- who probably have the most to gain from promoting municipal water -- got into the act. This June, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom issued an executive order to cancel the city's purchasing contract for bottled water, mandating instead that city departments rely on tap water that gushes down to the city from its clean reservoirs in Yosemite National Park. The next day, over heavy lobbying from the bottled water industry, Newsom along with progressive Salt Lake City Mayor Ross C. "Rocky" Anderson and Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak pushed through a resolution at the U.S. Conference of Mayors to commission a study looking at the impact of discarded bottled water bottles on city waste streams.

According to the Container Recycling Institute (CRI), 96 percent of bottled water is sold in single-size polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic bottles, which, because they are frequently consumed "on the go," end up in city trash cans rather than recycling bins. The national recycling rate for all PET bottles, including soda bottles, is just 23.1 percent, and bottled water is even lower. CRI estimates some 4 billion PET bottles end up in the waste stream, costing cities some $70 million a year in cleanup and landfill costs.

Bottled water "very clearly reflects the wasteful and reckless consumerism in this country," said Salt Lake City's Anderson in a conference call with reporters this month. "You really have to wonder at the utter stupidity and the irresponsibility sometimes of American consumers. These false needs are provided, and too often we just fall in line with what Madison Avenue comes up with to market these unnecessary products."

While falling short of a binding executive order, Anderson issued a directive to all city departments a year ago mandating that no tax money be spent on providing bottles of water for meetings and events. In coordination with CAI, the city has launched a campaign, called "Knock Out Bottled Water," with its own pledge for consumers and restaurants. (So far, 15 have signed up, most of them part of the city's popular upscale Gastronmy Inc. chain, whose flagship Market Street Grill earned "chef of the year" honors from Salt Lake City magazine.)

Other cities have separately pioneered their own efforts. New York, which gets pristine water from the Catskills, has started an advertising campaign to encourage residents to drink "cool, healthy, clean ... NYC water." In Berkeley, the school district last year replaced bottled water machines with large containers of tap. Other California cities, including Santa Barbara, Emeryville, San Leandro and Los Angeles have either cancelled bottled water contracts or instructed city departments not to buy bottled water. And this month, Boston signed on to the CAI pledge.

Nor is it just cities in on the East and West coasts that are taking action -- Ann Arbor, Mich., has already cancelled bottled water contracts, and mayors in other cities such as Urbana, Ill., and Wauwatosa, Wis., are considering similar actions. In Chicago, Mayor Richard Daley is considering a proposal to tax bottled water producers who bottle municipal water. And one of the very first cities to promote its tap water is -- of all places -- Louisville, Ky., which has distributed more than 1.8 million "Pure Tap" water bottles to residents since 1997 and branded a mascot, Tapper, to educate kids about the source of their water.

As the wave against bottled water has grown into a tide, the industry has not taken long to splash back. This August, the International Bottled Water Association published full-page ads in the New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle decrying the "misguided and confusing criticism by activist groups and a handful of mayors who have presented misinformation and subjective criticism as facts."

Instead of pitting bottled water against tap water, the group says, bottled water should be seen as an alternative to soda and other sugary drinks consumed outside the home. Its ads quote statistics saying 70 percent of beverages are consumed from a can or bottle, "a result of our 24/7 on-the-go society. So as far as we are concerned, the drink in everyone's purse, backpack, and lunch box should be water."

In fact IWBA president Joe Doss says a private poll by one bottler found three-quarters of people drink both tap water and bottled water, depending on the circumstances. "We don't see tap water as our competition," he says. "Every day on newspapers and TV, you see stories about increasing obesity and diabetes. These actions against bottled water will have no good consequences if they discourage people from drinking a healthy beverage."

As for recycling, Doss says that bottled water companies have done their part to reduce the amount of PET resin in bottles by 40 percent over the last five years. Despite the number of bottles that end up in landfills, however, he says PET bottles represent only a third of 1 percent (.0033) of all trash. "If you can get your head around that, it's very clear that these efforts to target bottled water are misguided at best and totally ineffective in dealing with the problem at worst." Instead, Doss says IWBA has been involved in supporting curbside recycling initiatives to try and increase the number of water bottles that are recycled, adding that two-thirds of bottled water is consumed at home, work or offices, places where curbside recycling is readily available.

Of course, those are all places where tap water is also readily available, contradicting the argument that bottled water is necessary as an alternative beverage "on the go." When I point out the discrepancy, Doss repeats his mantra of "choice": "It is a choice, it's always a choice; they should have that choice. Bottled water consumers are choosing to drink both, and there is nothing wrong with that."

Perhaps not so coincidentally, that is the same argument that soda companies have used for a decade as their product has come increasingly under attack from health advocates looking to ban soda from schools. After all, many of the same companies at the lead of soda production also produce water. The top producer of bottled water is Nestlé, which owns a quarter of the market with its brands, including Poland Spring, Calistoga, Deer Park, Ice Mountain and Arrowhead. Second and third are PepsiCo and the Coca-Cola Co., which produce Aquafina and Dasani, respectively.

In fact, as soft drinks started to decline in sales for the first time, Coke and Pepsi have increasingly promoted water as a healthy alternative, putting tens of millions of dollars of advertising into rebranding themselves as "hydration" companies and quietly replacing soda logos on vending machines with huge Aquafina and Dasani logos (with bottles of Coke and Pepsi, of course, still available a few buttons down.) Despite advertisements touting the purity of bottled water, however, Aquafina's former tagline says it all: "So pure we promise nothing."

While federal law requires that bottled water be held to the same standards as tap water, tap water is actually more tightly regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency, which requires daily testing and mandatory reporting to the public. For bottled water, the Food and Drug Administration requires only weekly testing and voluntary reporting. A 1999 study by the Natural Resources Defense Council found contamination in some bottles, including e.coli and arsenic.

While some companies, such as Nestlé, report testing information on their website, others don't. "All bottled water companies have telephone numbers you can contact to get the info you want," says Doss. "If you don't get the info you want, you can say, 'I'm not going to drink that brand.' You don't have that choice with tap water."

Others don't see that way. "There is accountability in the municipal system," says Wenonah Hauter, director of Food & Water Watch, which produced a report on bottled water this spring called Take Back the Tap. Her organization originally got into the issue of bottled water while battling companies seeking to privatize municipal water systems. "The excuse that elected officials often gave for privatization was that the public had lost confidence in the public water systems," says Hauter. "We realized that the whole issue of bottled water and the ad campaigns they have done for the past 10 or 15 years has really undermined public water. If we spent just a fraction of what people spend for what is an inferior or at least not a better product, we could have clean water for everyone."

In other words, bottled water has created a chicken-and-egg syndrome whereby advertisements touting the purity of bottled water undermine public support for maintenance of public systems, creating more reliance on bottled water as a source of drinking water. "It's kind of like you keep building more and more highways to accommodate sprawl, and it's this vicious cycle," says Anderson. "We need to stop accommodating these problems and giving up by drinking bottled water. We need to start demanding city officials address these issues."

Despite the problems activists see with bottled water, tap water is hardly a panacea. The EPA estimates that municipalities face a $22 billion shortfall in spending on maintenance of their water systems, and some of the same environmental groups that oppose bottled water have also warned against tap water contamination, especially in rural areas. In other areas, water that is perfectly safe may still have an inherently unpleasant taste or contain added chemicals such as chlorine. It's no accident that cities pushing tap water are those with the best water -- Boston, San Francisco and New York, for example -- are among the five cities in the country with water so pure the EPA doesn't require filtration. And even in those cities, rusting lead pipes in certain buildings can cause contamination that isn't monitored by the EPA.

The safest and cheapest solution, says Hauter, is to invest in a home filtration system and fill your own water bottles from the tap. The most expensive systems cost only about $400 and use reverse osmosis, the same process used by Coke and Pepsi to filter their bottled water. The vast majority of consumers, however, don't need anything that extreme, says Hauter. For chemicals like chlorine, an "adsorptive filter" such as the popular Britta filters, can do the trick. Slightly fancier filters with "ion exchange resin" can take care of lead. And on-the-faucet "particulate filters" can remove particles and bacteria. Because the EPA requires municipalities to submit yearly tests on water quality, it's relatively easy to find out what contaminants, if any, are in your water by going to the agency's website. Or to be doubly sure, some municipal health departments will test your water for free. From there, the Take Back the Tap report lists several nonprofit organizations that can recommend the best filter on the basis of the findings.

After all, filtered tap water is good enough for many bottled water companies themselves. This summer, PepsiCo made the embarrassing public admission that its Aquafina brand water is actually nothing more than filtered water from municipal sources, a fact that the company will now note on its bottles. In fact, some 40 percent of bottled water, including Coke's Dasani brand, is water that it gets from the tap for free, puts through filtration processes, and then sells back to the public with a markup of up to 1,000 times. A law passed by the state legislature in California this year and signed by Governor Schwarzenegger on October 13 requires all bottled water companies to print their source, as well as water quality information, on the label. "When we first introduced this bill in 2003, it was an uphill battle, and everyone said it was 'a solution in search of a problem,'" says Jennifer Clary of Clean Water Action. "No one was saying that this time."

In terms of environmental impact, however, that may be better than the water that Nestlé gets from springs and underwater aquifers around the country. Unlike with surface water, most states have no laws against takings of groundwater that lies underneath a landowner's property, leading to a situation that Texans call the "law of the biggest pump" -- that is, whoever sucks hardest can literally take the water from beneath his neighbor's property.

While industry advocates rightly point out that bottled water amounts to a very small percent of total groundwater use, rural communities around the country have fought specific bottled water plants that take millions of gallons of water out of their watersheds at no cost, and often without so much as a permit or study on environmental consequences.

In addition to the backlash in restaurants and cities, grassroots efforts around the country have taken the fight directly to the source, leading to bills in more than ten states to regulate groundwater takings -- including in Florida, Georgia, Maine, Michigan, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont and West Virginia. Some of the bills have even proposed an extraction tax of several cents a gallon that would offset costs to the environment. While most of these bills have been defeated after heavy lobbying from industry, both Michigan and Vermont have passed legislation requiring permits for taking water over a certain amount of water (250,000 gallons a day and 50,000 gallons a day, respectively).

The hardest battle has been fought in Maine, where Nestlé's Poland Spring brand extracts some 180 million gallons a year from land in three communities -- Poland, Hollis, and Fryeburg. Residents have complained about the hundreds of trucks that rumble through their rural communities, as well as anecdotal reports of dropping water levels in area wells, lakes, and rivers. In these days of massive droughts across the country, there's no telling how much of that, if any, is due to the bottling plants. But that's just the point, says Jim Wilfong, director of grassroots group H2OforME. "It's impossible to tell what's going on beneath the ground," he says. "They will always tell you they are monitoring water levels, but there is no independent confirmation."

Last year, Wilfong's group circulated petitions for a state referendum that would create a permitting process for water extraction that would include environmental review and ongoing monitoring. In addition, it would require a 20-cent-per-gallon extraction tax that would be contributed to a trust to compensate taxpayers for water takings. "That water belongs to all people of Maine, and the reason it's clean is we have invested in public sewer systems and cleaned up oil and gasoline spills," says Wilfong, a former state legislator and assistant trade secretary under Clinton. "Then a company moves in from Switzerland and takes some advantage of it. As a principle that is not right."

The referendum campaign was bitterly fought, with Nestlé reportedly contributing $200,000 to a political action committee that waged an aggressive media campaign, stirring up anti-tax sentiment and warning about lost jobs in rural areas. In the end, the referendum failed to make the ballot by just a few hundred signatures. When Wilfong vowed to bring it up again this year, however, Nestlé offered to sit down and hammer out a compromise. While the tax idea was dropped, the bill introduced this summer establishes much of what the referendum would have done, including a permitting process with environmental impact study and subsequent groundwater monitoring paid for by the companies, as well as language acknowledging for the first time that groundwater is a public resource that companies did not have unlimited access to.

"It's not the end-all, but, boy, it moved us along way up the path from where we were," says Wilfong. As the world faces a growing global water shortage in coming years and global warming continues to stoke fears of increasing incident of drought, it's vitally important that laws establish who owns the right to groundwater sources, he says. "That is the big issue, not just in Maine but around the country and around the world. The real questions are, who is going to own the water and who is going to control it, and isn't it insane policy to let people control something so important?"

Michael Blanding is a freelance writer living in Boston. Read more of his writing at MichaelBlanding.com.

 
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