Energy & Environment

Banning Bottled Water

Can laws against using public money to purchase bottled water save our tap water?
by | August 2010
 

Concord, Mass., is well known for Walden Pond, the small body of water where Henry David Thoreau famously took up residence in the 1840s. Today, however, it's a different kind of H20 that's making headlines in the town: Concord has become the first place in the United States to ban the sale of bottled water.

The City Council approved the ban in May -- knowing it may be unenforceable -- after 82-year-old local activist Jean Hill took up the cause. "All these discarded bottles are damaging our planet and are creating more pollution on our streets," Hill told The Boston Globe.

Whether the ban stays on the books, Concord's move is only the latest salvo in a bottled water war taking place in cities and states nationwide. In 2006, San Francisco banned bottled water in government offices after a San Francisco Chronicle investigation revealed that the city spent $500,000 per year on bottled water and supplies. Soon after, Salt Lake City, Miami, Chicago, and Chapel Hill, N.C., followed suit, and more than 100 municipalities in the U.S. have sought to reduce bottled water consumption since then. Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter recently issued an executive order cutting state spending on water bottles, following California, Illinois and New York state's leads.

"These actions are not just about fiscal responsibility; they are about civic pride and protecting common resources," said Leslie Samuelrich, deputy director of Corporate Accountability International (CAI), a Boston-based advocacy group that lobbies officials to support public water systems by choosing tap over bottled water.

The push to ban the bottles goes beyond recessionary budget concerns and touches on a harsh truth: The nation's water infrastructure is in dire straits. In the coming decades, America's tap water system will need $335 billion in maintenance, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Meanwhile, bottled water sales totaled $10.6 billion for 8.5 billion gallons nationwide in 2009 -- nearly 28 gallons per American, the Beverage Marketing Corp. says. If states and cities can wean the public off bottled water, according to Samuelrich and CAI, they could shift at least some of that spending toward tap water investments.

Groups such as CAI definitely have an agenda, but they're not the first to argue against bottled water. In 2008, the U.S. Conference of Mayors (USCM) passed a resolution urging cities to phase out government use of bottled water when feasible and promote the importance of municipal water. In fact, according to recent USCM data, 72 percent of cities surveyed said they have considered eliminating or reducing bottled water purchases within city facilities, and 45 percent cited "promoting public water" as the reason for taking such an action.

In the end, outright bans on bottled water, like the one in Concord, aren't likely to take hold. Singling out water bottles can be difficult to justify -- why not a ban on soda or juice bottles? And bottles of water can be vital in the wake of natural disasters, when water from municipal systems may be undrinkable or unavailable.

However, as the nation's aging water infrastructure continues to erode -- The New York Times' analysis of EPA data found that water pipes burst on average every two minutes somewhere in the country -- cities and states must find the money to fix it somewhere. And banning the use of public money on bottled water is increasingly seen as the first step in tapping new funds for tap water.

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