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When tapwater becomes trendy, necessary, convenient

It’s the fastest growing segment of the beverage market, but as international trendsetters are becoming aware of the ecological footprint of bottled water, things are beginning to change: top chefs are taking it off the menu, an influential food critic is making it a point of penalty, a men’s magazine has started a just say no campaign and one mayor has banned its sale on city property.

With $55 billion in annual sales, and more than half the population of the western world as consumers, the bottled water industry is big business; Western Europeans, the largest consumers, drink an average of 85 liters/person/year (the Italians top the list at 107 liters/person/year) and in the past decade consumption in the U.S. has doubled, and in the UK has more than tripled.

The market is also run by big business: the large multinationals Nestlé, Danone, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo own the majority of the bottled water brands and in the past 3 decades they have successfully convinced the Western world (and more recently, India and China) that bottled is better.

But now, as business, media and political leaders have begun to take note of the heavy carbon footprint of bottled water, they’re beginning to fight the mass marketing and put out their own message: tap water can be a luxury item.

“Hetch Hetchy water tastes great”

Back in 2002, San Francisco Italian restaurant Incanto (along with Bay Area dining establishment Poggio) was one of the first to remove the bottle from their menu. Their website trumpets the policy as a mark of distinction.

“Meals at Incanto begin with complimentary sparkling or still water because our local Hetch Hetchy water tastes great (we filter, chill and carbonate it before serving) and because serving our local water in reusable carafes makes more sense for the environment than manufacturing thousands of single-use glass bottles for someone to use once and throw away.”

Since then many others, like New York’s Del Posto, San Francisco’s Nopa, Toronto’s Rosebud Restaurant, have joined the unofficial campaign, but in March of 2007 when Alice Waters of Berkeley’s icon of sustainable dining Chez Panisse decided to offer her diners filtered, and carbonated, tap water, the “drink local” movement really began to gather steam.

Chez Panisse general manager Mike Kossa-Rienzi explained to The San Francisco Chronicle in March of 2007 that their decision to buy a $400 carbonating machine, as well as to offer a filtered alternative to the bottle stems from their recognition of the food miles inherent in shipping water across the world. “Our whole goal of sustainability means using as little energy as we have to. Shipping bottles of water from Italy doesn’t make sense.”

Well-traveled water

Bottles are shipped from Italy to San Francisco, or Fiji to London, to satisfy the palates of a public that has grown accustomed to designer water (stars like Jennifer Aniston, Madonna… hawk their favorite brands).

There are water somelliers (not to mention water bars and water menus) at Manhattan’s Ritz-Carlton and Toronto’s Epic who advise diners on the best choice with their meals. Beyond water bars and water menus, even the average consumer is more familiar with the choice of “Perrier or Pellegrino” than “bottled or tap”.

This passion for well-traveled water has its price. The National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has calculated just how much carbon dioxide is used to bring bottled water to the U.S. from France and Italy (the two largest exporters to the U.S.) and Fiji (the most distant exporter).

According to a New York Times report from May of 2007 that total is 4,000 tons of carbon dioxide or as the NRDC’s Dr. Solomon explained it is the equivalent of “the yearly emissions from 700 cars on the road” and “a significant contribution to global warming, and fundamentally an unnecessary one.”

With the increasing focus on “food miles” and now, “water miles”, some restaurants have chosen to source only local water. Actor Jamie Kennedy, sells local Gaia water at his Jamie Kennedy Restaurant in Toronto (Gaia is bottled in Caledon, Ontario, just 30 miles away).

“Why are we bringing in water from Fiji in a nation that’s got more water than any other nation in the world?” he asks. “It’s air freight, it’s contributing carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, it’s all those things that if you’re environmentally conscious in the year 2007 you totally question.”

Restaurants will be penalised

Even restaurant reviewers are beginning to take water miles into account in their ratings. London Times food critic Giles Coren declared in a column from January of 2007, “if I am not offered tap water before mineral water, restaurants will be penalised”. Failure to offer the bottle-free alternative will result in a loss of points on his complicated point-scoring system, though he offers one exception: Belu.

Sourced and bottled in Shropshire (145 miles from London), Belu is not just local, but they claim to be the “first bottled water that doesn’t contribute to climate change”. Their bottles are made from a fully biodegradable plastic (made from a corn derivative) that can be composted in just 12 weeks and all the profits go to cleaning up water in India, Africa and rivers in the United Kingdom.

Coren gives points to Notting Hill’s The Fat Badger for serving Belu and he also lists London’s Glade and Manhattan’s Nobu as spots to find it (though given the 3,000 miles between Shropshire and New York, the latter may not deserve as many points for their offering).

Coren doesn’t just urge readers to renounce the bottle for the sake of the planet, but he goes so far as to label mineral water a “preposterous vanity”.

He argues: “It is flown and shipped around the world, from France and Norway at best, from Japan and Fiji at worst. It is bottled in glass that is mostly thrown away and is stupidly heavy to freight, or in plastic which never, ever, decomposes and just goes to landfill or ends up in one of the ‘plastic patches’ the size of Texas currently gyring in our oceans.”

This plastic that ends up in our landfills, or littering our countrysides and oceans, is not insignificant, given that worldwide about 2.7 million tons of plastic are used to bottle water each year and 88% of which is not recycled.

Beyond the disposal issue, is the fact that most bottles are made from polyethyleneterephthalate (PET) which is derived from oil. According to the Earth Policy Institute, just to meet the U.S. annual demand for bottled water requires more than 1.5 million barrels of oil, enough to fuel about 100,000 U.S. cars for a year.

“It’s time to rediscover municipal water”

To avoid the plastic packaging altogether, Boston-based food writer Corby Kummer, who in the past has admitted that a large portion of his food budget goes to water from San Pellegrino, Italy and Evian, now advocates forgoing even locally bottled water for the good old local water supply. In May of 2007 he told the Canadian magazine Macleans that “it’s time to rediscover municipal water.”

The online men’s magazine XXYZ, geared toward hip, urban Toronto-ites, has created a wallet insert to help them “say no to bottled water” (downloadable for users). “Let the restaurant owner know you’re not a cheapo; you’re smart and concerned about themonetization of the world’s most precious resource. Use your savings to buy a better bottle of wine, leave a better tip or help those 1.1 billion people [with no access to drinking water] get something we take for granted.”

Bottled water as a “social phenomenon”

Nowadays, it may seem forward-thinking to say no to bottled water, but given that consumption has grown on average 7% per year worldwide for the past 3 decades, drinking water from the bottle is a rather new concept, what one World Wildlife Federation (WWF) study classifies as a “social phenomenon”.

Back in 2001 the WWF commissioned a study called Bottled Water: Understanding a Social Phenomenon in hopes of understanding how the public has grown such a bottled water habit.

They found that while a bottle of Evian (the world’s largest water brand) costs just 0.5 pence (about 10 cents) to produce, the costs of transport, marketing and retailer’s profits account for the huge markup: 10-15% of the price is just to pay for advertising.

Much of this advertising goes to convince consumers that it’s worth paying 500 to 1,000 times more than the cost of water. As the then-chairman of the board of the Perrier Corporation stated, in what WWF author Catherine Ferrier calls “a moment of candour”, “It struck me… that all you had to do is take the water out of the ground and then sell it for more than the price of wine, milk, or, for that matter, oil.”

Coca-Cola and PepsiCo bottling tap water for profit

While many of the European brands are derived from natural source springs (Perrier, Evian, San Pellegrino), about half of bottled water is simply purified water, either labeled “enriched water” for those with minerals added (Coca-Cola’s BonAquA) or “purified water” for simple purified tap water (PepsiCo’s Aquafina or Coca-Cola’s Dasani).

According to the WWF report, although PepsiCo’s labels for its Aquafina brand “picture beautiful stylized mountains”, the water is actually “derived from municipal tap water. The water reportedly is treated tap water taken from 11 different city and town water supplies across the USA.”

Not only are consumers paying up to 1,000 times more for their own water, but it’s not necessarily safer than drinking it straight from the tap. In the U.S., the public water supply is more strictly regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency than bottled water is by the Food and Drug Administration.

As the NRDC points out on their website, “Some of this marketing is misleading, implying the water comes from pristine sources when it does not. For example, one brand of ‘spring water’ whose label pictured a lake and mountains, actually came from a well in an industrial facility’s parking lot, near a hazardous waste dump, and periodically was contaminated with industrial chemicals at levels above FDA standards.”

No amount of marketing could save Coca-Cola and the launch of their Dasani brand in the UK back in 2004. When illegal levels of the possibly cancer-causing chemical bromate were discovered in samples, Coca-Cola was forced to recall 500,000 bottles and cancel the launch. The scandal woke up some British consumers to the reality behind purified water. As Kent resident Karin Farrington told The Observer, describing a Dasani bottle she was keeping as a souvenir, “I’m going to fill up this bottle from the tap. It will be the same product that Coca-Cola was making – only 3,000 times cheaper and 100% safe.”

Big city bottle bans

Now big city mayors are getting involved, banning the bottle in the name of economics. In 2005, after the press reported that the city had spent nearly $90,000 on bottled water for employees, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa ordered city agencies to stop buying it.

In June of 2007 San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom banned the purchase of bottled water for all city departments, as well as city concessions, and city-funded events in city buildings. All this would save the city a half million dollars per year and as Newsom claimed in an executive order, without sacrificing quality of water: “all of this waste and pollution is generated by a product that by objective standards is often inferior to the quality of San Francisco’s pristine tap water.”

The ban may continue to spread. Santa Barbara, California has also banned the city from spending money on it and at the U.S. Conference of Mayors in June of 2007, Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson and Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak joined San Francisco’s Newsom in sponsoring a resolution calling for a study of the impact of bottled water on cities’ budgets and waste-disposal systems.

Water as a profit center

The economics aren’t quite so simple for those in the restaurant business. Not all restaurants are ready to ban the bottle for the sake of saving the planet, or the positive PR, because the profit margin on bottled water are big. According to The New York Times, restaurants buy it for just a dollar or two and sell it for $8 or more, giving it the biggest markup of anything on the menu.

Instead of being paid to sell water, Incanto restaurant owner Mark Pastore now spends to give it away. After spending $6,000 on the initial water system, he now spends at least $750 a year on filters alone.

He told The Oakland Tribune in April of 2007, “Water is a profit center for most restaurants. For us, it’s a cost center”. But for Pastore, his decision still makes sense. “I just think it’s the right thing to do. I thought it was kind of foolish to put water in bottles and ship it around the world.”