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Banning the bottle

As sales of bottled water continue to increase around the world, a growing number of public administrations and  universities  – concerned about  the negative impact of bottled water on the environment – are electing to put a stop to this trend. Hannah Temby reports.

Sales of bottled water are running high. Australians spent AU$500 million on bottled water in 2008, while United States consumers bought 29.8 billion bottles of water in 2006.

When taking into account the production of plastic as well as the bottling process and transport, the Pacific Institute has found that more than 17 million barrels of oil were required in 2006 just to satisfy America’s thirst for bottled water.

That means the energy use embedded in every bottle of water was equivalent to filling a plastic bottle a quarter full of oil.

Dr Peter Gleick, Director of the Pacific Institute and author of the book “Bottled and Sold: The story behind our obsession with bottled water,” says the beverage industry has been able to manufacture demand through decades of an intensive marketing campaign.

Different brands claim health benefits, cleaner and safer water, and seek to create a fear of tap water in the public mind.

Along with taste and convenience, Dr Gleick says, “All of these factors have driven consumption of bottled water higher and higher, and the industry pushes on all of them.”

But more and more  cities are now banning the purchase of bottled water with government funds and ceasing sales of bottled water on city property.

As shown on the Bottle Ban map, many towns and cities have restricted bottled water buying in the past five years, including San Francisco, and Liverpool.

According to a report published by  Inside the Bottle on Canada’s first Bottled Water Free Day in March 201o,  “76 municipalities, 4 municipal associations (including the Federation of Canadian Municipalities), 8 school boards, 5 university campuses and countless businesses have implemented restrictions on bottled water.” Since then more universities have imposed bans and in April 2011, Toronto became the biggest city administration in the world to ban bottled water when its councillors defeated a motion by 24 to 18 aimed at overturning a ban imposed in 2008.

Such bans are partly  motivated by municipal governments’ spending cuts and a need to appear both fiscally conservative and environmentally conscious.

Corporate Accountability International chief of staff, Leslie Samuelrich, said spending taxpayer dollars on bottled water sends the wrong message about our nation’s high quality tap water.

“It is also entirely wasteful to spend scarce public dollars on such a non-essential use of our most essential public resource,” Samuelrich said.

The bans have been propelled by resolutions recently passed by both the US Conference of Mayors and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, which asked cities to phase out municipal bottled water usage.

Beyond municipal action, bottled water has also been banned on some university campuses in the USA and Canada, including the University of Winnipeg and Washington University in St. Louis.

And four American states have stopped the use of state government funds to buy bottled water. New York and Illinois have already phased out bottled water from state buildings, departments and agencies. The Governors of Virginia and Colorado have pledged to do the same.

Yet despite the numerous bans in place or pending, none of these actions actually stop citizens buying bottled water completely.

Only two towns in the world have voted for bans on the sale of all bottled water, and Bundanoon in New South Wales’s Southern Highlands is the only one to have actually implemented its ban, having stopped sales of single serve still water since September 2009.

In April 2010, the people of Concord, Massachusetts, became the second town worldwide to ban bottled water, with the restriction supposed to be effective from 1 January 2011.

82-year-old Jean Hill campaigned for two years for the ban to be passed.

“Discarded bottles are damaging our planet, causing clumps of garbage in the ocean that hurt our fish and creating more pollution on our streets,” Hill said at a Concord town meeting.

But bans that go further and restrict the choices of the voters themselves are much more difficult to pass and help explain why only two towns have tried to ban bottled water totally.

The bottled water industry has also fought back, saying it is just providing a healthy option for consumers in nations with rising obesity and diabetes.

The International Bottled Water Association (IBWA) says bottled water is healthy, safe, more recycled than other plastic packaging and crucial in times of an emergency or a disaster.

IWBA spokesperson, Tom Lauria, argues “any actions that discourage or prevent consumers from drinking water, whether tap or bottled, are not in the public interest.”

According to the IWBA, bottled water is one of thousands of products packaged in plastic and bottled water shouldn’t be singled out.

The IBWA said it was considering mounting a legal challenge against the Concord Vote.

So, are bans the best way to deal with consumption of bottled water?

Dr Gleick doesn’t think so. He says the reasons why people drink bottled water need to be dealt with and governments and communities need to invest into improving access to safe public water.

“But I do support the efforts of communities and municipalities themselves to choose not to buy bottled water when high quality tap water is available,” he says.

Dr Gleick believes the array of actions against bottled water is a sign that people are starting to think about bottled water differently.

“Without a doubt, people and communities are beginning to think about, and realize, the problems associated with bottled water.

“The responses we see, including bans, decisions to cut purchases, and even the actions of individuals to begin to cut their bottled water use, are all indications that the bad things associated with commodifying water are beginning to be understood,” he says.

Better education is key.

“The more we know about bottled water, where it comes from, what’s in it, how it’s treated and monitored, what the environmental problems are, the less people are likely to buy,” Dr Gleick says.

“Most tap water is not free, nor should it be. We must pay the true costs of providing reliable, high-quality tap water. But those costs are far, far less than bottled water.”

He suggests a return to the old-fashioned drinking fountain.

“Clean, working water fountains are a public good, and we should make tap water as convenient as bottled water.”

Municipal governments in Australia have shied away from bans on bottled water, preferring instead to upgrade or install new drinking fountains and move away from consumption in council offices and meetings.

Waverley and Manly councils in NSW have also had particular success with new drinking stations designed to get people refilling plastic bottles rather than throwing them out.

Manly Councillor, Barbara Aird, argues Bundanoon is a very small town, with about 2500 residents, making a voluntary ban amongst the town’s businesses quite achievable.

She says the word “ban” also sends out the wrong message, and points out that in fact Bundanoon hasn’t actually banned bottled water.

Rather the town as a community has chosen to stop supplying the product.

“Councils can’t actually outright ban people from buying plastic water bottles.”

“We can have a policy within our organization, which the council does, but it really has to be a community effort. What we’ve done with the bubblers is try to change a pattern of thinking that buying bottles over and over is ok,” Aird said.

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You can keep up to date with campaign developments in North Amercia at Inside the Bottle.

Additional research by Caroline Ball, Lindyl Crabb and Sze-Yian Lee

Additional reporting by Edwina Carr

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