"In an effort to preserve global resources, Bella Luna does not serve bottled water. We have fountain seltzer water and filtered still water by request." So says the wine list of the upmarket Bella Luna Restaurant in Boston, US.
Bella Luna's CEO, Kathie Mainzer made the decision to can the bottle six months ago after a trip to the Dominican Republic, where residents have to boil their tap water in order to drink it. "I came home realizing what a precious resource water is and how we take it for granted," she says, noting that tap water in Boston is safe, cheap and doesn't lead to more trash. "Here we were throwing away this free resource and generating more disposable items -- it seemed absurd."
Between the bottles of Saratoga Spring she served with dinner and Poland Spring that bar-goers would order downstairs, Mainzer figures she is losing around $500 a month from the decision. But "it was worth it to avoid adding more pollution to the landfills," she says.
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, California 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.
Earlier this month, the activist group Corporate Accountability International (CAI) brought that message home to the consumers with its new "Think Outside the Bottle Pledge," which commits signees to "opt for public water over bottled water" and support "the efforts of local officials who prioritize strong public water systems." According to the group, CAI has already signed several thousand people on the pledge, including actor Martin Sheen and several mayors around the country.
"By taking this pledge, people are separating the packaging from the product and saying we don't have to create a waste stream of billions of bottles to have a drink of water," says Gigi Kellet, campaign director for the organization. "They are basically saying they are going to do what they can to support strong public water systems and let communities around the country who are struggling to regain control of their resources know they are not alone."
The pledge caps a summer of organizing that has seen the backlash against bottled water go mainstream. 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.
Besides a 1999 study by the Natural Resources Defense Council found contamination in some bottles, including e.coli and arsenic.
At the same time, manufacturing plastic bottles for bottled water creates an astounding amount of pollution -- an annual equivalent of 1.5 billion barrels of oil, according to Food & Water Watch. Add to that the carbon emissions from transporting water from as far away as Norway (Voss), Italy (San Pellegrino), or Fiji (Fiji), and the billions of plastic bottles that end up in the waste stream, and drinking bottled water does start to seem a little bit of madness.
On the other hand tap water is not only safe, but also more tightly regulated that its bottled counterpart, but then Americans drank some 37 billion bottles of water in 2005, notes Michael Blanding, an activist.
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.)
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).
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.
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.
The fact remains though that pipes carrying the tap water might also get rusted. The safest and cheapest solution then 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.
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.