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Bottled water criticized for all its empties
Sacramento Bee


July 30, 2007

From city halls to rugby fields, a backlash is brewing against bottled water, one of the most popular and innocent-looking consumer products in the grocery store.

As sales of bottled water have soared in recent years, so have concerns about the huge trail of empty plastic bottles left behind, the majority of which never get recycled.

Efforts to change that pattern are bubbling up coast to coast.

On June 25, the U.S. Conference of Mayors issued a resolution calling for a study on the impact of bottled water on municipal waste streams. On July 1, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, citing environmental and financial concerns, banned city departments from buying any kind of bottled water.

The city of New York has launched a campaign urging thirsty residents to forgo bottled water and turn on their taps instead. Some of the nation's glossiest restaurants have stopped serving bottled water out of concern for the environment.

In Sacramento, Calif., a rugby tournament organizer, Ray Schwartz, is taking his own stand.

In May, Schwartz instructed every rugby team coming to a tournament at Stanford University to leave their bottled water at home and instead bring "sports racks" that hold multiple refillable bottles. He told the competitors they could replenish the bottles from five-gallon dispensers that he pledged to keep filled with ice water at the confluence of three fields.

"We had 32 rugby clubs competing," Schwartz recalled, "and most everyone complied. Not a lot of people were using disposable water bottles."

As triumphs go, however, it was a drop in an enormous bucket.

Bottled-water sales in the United States have been growing at a phenomenal pace for years. Last year, national sales by volume rose 9.5 percent, and are expected to go up another 10 percent in 2007, according to the International Bottled Water Association, a trade group in Alexandria, Va., that uses data from the Beverage Marketing Corp. Last year, Americans consumed a staggering 8.25 billion gallons of the product.

Recycling, on the other hand, is trickling along.

Nationally, less than one-fourth of clear PET (polyethylene terephthalate) packaging and containers -- the plastic category that includes water and soda bottles -- gets recycled, according to the 2005 reports, the latest numbers available.

The bottled-water movement has been a remarkable consumer shift. Americans now drink more bottled water than any other beverage category but carbonated soft drinks. Clear water bottles have replaced the proverbial pitcher and drinking glasses at meetings throughout corporate America. They are sold everywhere from movie theaters to ball games, often at per-ounce prices higher than gasoline.

The current wave of opposition to bottled water is misplaced and unfair, said Joe Doss, president and CEO of the International Bottled Water Association.

"Bottled water is a healthy, safe and convenient product," Doss said.

He said small disposable plastic water bottles make up only one-third of 1 percent of all the waste produced in the United States.

The bottled-water industry, he added, has done its share by turning to lighter plastics that have reduced the use of plastic resin by 40 percent in the past five years.

But according to Mark Murray, executive director of the Sacramento-based Californians Against Waste, the environmental toll remains high.

Clear plastic water bottles are a growing source of litter and waste, he said. They are often consumed away from home -- in parks, at sporting venues, in shopping malls, on road trips -- where recycling opportunities are missing. The result: The empties wind up on roadsides or in trashcans bound for landfills.

In addition, Murray and others said, the bottles are made of petroleum products. They consume valuable resources and energy and create pollution when manufactured. Transporting them adds another layer of energy consumption and pollution. Disposal and recycling generate still another, Murray said.

As Americans grow more aware and concerned about global warming and the overall condition of the environment, it has been natural for them to reconsider their bottled-water usage, said Jennifer Powers, a spokeswoman for the Natural Resources Defense Council in New York.

"Consumers and everyday people are taking a moment to stop and think it all through," Powers said. "They are realizing the better alternative is right there in their kitchen sink."

The current backlash extends beyond environmental worries. Cities such as New York -- which run massive, costly and carefully monitored drinking-water operations -- are working to get the message out that their water is as pure and good-tasting as much of the bottled water on the market. Cities and consumer advocates have been especially disturbed by the fact that a good portion of bottled water comes directly from municipal taps.

Last week, reacting to such concerns, PepsiCo said it would begin acknowledging on its Aquafina bottled-water labels that its product is made with tap water.


Deb Kollars can be reached at dkollars(at)
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