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Is Your City Going to Be Bottled Water-Free?

A new resolution from leading U.S. mayors shows that more cities may be ditching the bottled stuff in favor of tap.
 
 
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It started with San Francisco's Mayor Gavin Newsom, but now the rest of the country is getting on board. Last summer Newsom issued an executive order canceling San Francisco's bottled water contracts. Now, at the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which represents more than 1,100 mayors nationwide, a resolution was passed to encourage all mayors to phase out their cities' spending on bottled water and to promote tap water.

"Cities are sending the wrong message about the quality of public water when we spend taxpayer dollars on water in disposable containers from a private corporation," said Newsom. "Our public water systems are among the best in the world and demand significant and ongoing investment."

The resolution was spurred by not just Newsom, but the more than 60 other mayors who have been canceling bottled water contracts to help their cities save money and protect the environment. The most recent to join the tide were San Jose, Miami and Orlando. But the resolution is supported by other major cities like Philadelphia, New York, Chicago and Boston.

Corporate Accountability International, a leading national pressure group, reported:

Over the past year, the U.S. Conference of Mayors explored the economic and environmental impact of bottled water. Research conducted by conference staff has found that bottled water is being sold for as much as 4,000 times the cost of tap water delivery even though up to 40 percent of bottled water comes from the same source.

Cities are also spending more than $70 million a year to dispose of plastic water bottles. San Francisco and other large cities were also spending more than $500,000 a year on annual contracts.

"It's just plain common sense for cities to stop padding the bottled water industry's bottom line at taxpayer expense," said Gigi Kellett, national director of CAI's Think Outside the Bottle campaign. "This resolution will send the strong message that opting for tap over bottled water is what's best for our environment, our pocketbooks and our long-term, equitable access to our most essential resource."

The bottled water industry has grown into an $11.5 billion empire in recent years that went virtually unchallenged until last year, when a massive backlash began, ignited mostly by an increasing environmental awareness about bottled water. For one, Food and Water Watch reported that it takes 17.6 million barrels of oil each year to make all the plastic bottles we need in the United States -- the equivalent of one than 1 million vehicles on the roads -- not to mention all the fuel it takes to ship the bottles to stores and to dispose of them. More than 80 percent of the bottles end up in landfills or tossed onto the street, making their way into our waterways; some even end up in the giant plastic whirlpool circling in the Pacific Ocean that is poisoning marine life and birds.

Of course, the concept of paying for bottled water for city employees with taxpayer money when 99 percent of Americans have access to safe water is another reason mayors are beginning to rethink their water contracts. The website Tappening has included a list of a few other good reasons to make the switch:

  • Water systems that provide tap water have to test for water pathogens that can cause intestinal problems; bottled water companies don't do this.
  • City tap water can have no confirmed E. coli or fecal coliform bacteria. FDA bottled water rules include no such prohibition (a certain amount of any type of coliform bacteria is allowed in bottled water).
  • City tap water, from surface water, must be filtered and disinfected. In contrast, there are no federal filtration or disinfection requirements for bottled water.
  • In one publicized taste test in New York City, conducted by Showtime television, researchers found that 75 percent of participants actually preferred the taste of tap water to bottled water.
  • City tap water must meet standards for certain important toxic or cancer-causing chemicals, such as phthalate (a chemical that can leach from plastic, including plastic bottles); some in the industry persuaded the FDA to exempt bottled water from the regulations regarding these chemicals.
  • City water systems must issue annual "right to know" reports, telling consumers what is in their water. Bottlers successfully killed a "right to know" requirement for bottled water.

As Newsom summed up: "The fact is, our tap water is more highly regulated than what's in the bottle. Years of misleading bottled water marketing have led residents to believe otherwise. Years of misleading marketing have also led the city to spend taxpayer dollars on lucrative bottled water contracts -- even when the city itself provides water that is every bit, if not more, safe, reliable and thirst-quenching."

While tap water may be safer than most bottled water, we need increasing vigilance to protect funding to keep it that way and to ensure continued federal funding for our public water infrastructure. It is estimated that cities need $22 billion each year to keep up their public water systems, and the Conference of Mayors resolution is one way to help increase support for public water.

"The bottled water bucks stop here," said Newsom. "We should not be consumed with the disposal of billions of pounds of plastic water bottles each year. Instead, we should be providing city employees and residents access to quality drinking water, regardless of their means."

Tara Lohan is a managing editor at AlterNet.

 
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