Banning Bottled Water?

June 23rd, 2010 by Elizabeth Royte

A proposed ban in Massachusetts raises provocative questions.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

Jean Hill, an 82-year-old widowed grandmother of six who lives in Concord, Massachusetts, hadn’t mounted the ramparts in some time. At the age of 16, she’d pressed for paid vacations at a New York textile factory. (“Get lost,” the union told her, possibly guessing she was an underage worker.) And in the 1960’s, she marched in Washington against the Vietnam war. After that, the civic life of Hill, a working mother of four, went dormant.

Until this spring, that is, when Hill placed an initiative on her Town Meeting warrant: should Concord ban the selling of water in plastic bottles? So passionately did Hill present her case—which centered on the billions of empty plastic bottles that end up littered across the landscape and floating in oceanic trash gyres—that Initiative 65 passed by a majority of the 398 voters in attendance.

The reaction to this first-in-the-nation ban was large, swift, and predictable: It’s about time, bottled-water opponents said. Nanny-state fascism, cried anonymous libertarian bloggers. The ban will never hold up in court, said the bottlers, because it unfairly singles out one consumer product.

Hill didn’t care if her ban stuck or not. “At least it’s out there,” she says. “I’m hoping this will go from community to community.” Already, she adds, a gentleman from Lexington plans to introduce a similar measure at his town meeting. (Last year, Bundanoon, Australia, with a population of 2,500, became the first town in the world to quit selling bottled water, though no penalties are imposed on stores that defy the measure. In 2008, a similar ban was proposed and defeated in Ontario.)

Until fairly recently, Hill had been ignorant of the arguments against bottled water, which note the amount of oil it takes to make the water bottles produced in the United States each year (the equivalent of 17 million barrels) and the additional energy required to pump and transport bottled water around the world. She wrote the initiative, she says, because she was “infuriated” by the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which her young grandson told her about; by the general “trashing” of the planet; and by Nestle, the world’s largest water bottler. “They’re draining aquifers and selling that water back to people,” Hill says. “And so I thought I’d start something.”

Now Hill is fielding calls from the media and screening her snail mail, some of which has been rather hurtful. Still, she says, “I have no regrets about what I started. We have good tap water here. I’m cuckoo on this subject, and I don’t have time to fool around.”

Hill is joining the battle against bottled water at what may be an industry turning point. Bottled water sales are down for the second year in a row—an about-face from the rapid growth of the late ‘90s and early ‘00s. Environmental activists can take some credit for raising awareness of the product’s environmental footprint, though it’s likely the return to free tap water has as much or more to do with the faltering economy.

Hill’s nerve and her enthusiasm for the environment are admirable. Certainly far fewer people should rely on bottled water when their tap water is perfectly safe and tasty (or can be made that way, with a simple filter). “Choice editing,” in which harmful options are taken off the table, can be an effective way to make safe and environmentally friendly products the default position. In the past, when government has stepped in to limit our freedoms—to smoke in restaurants, say, or to drive without seatbelts— consumers have balked but eventually they get over it.

But bottled water represents issues that are so much larger than the bottle itself—a cultural shift from using public services to buying private services, and our ever-growing need for instant gratification—that one wonders if singling out this product for a ban makes practical sense.  Rather than a ban, which is guaranteed to provoke legal reaction and to alienate potential allies in the fight against conspicuous consumption, a first step could be education: inform the public about the economic, social, and environmental toll of bottled water, and about the quality of their tap water (be honest!), then help people make the right decision. Invest in more public water fountains (perhaps with an extra spigot for refilling reusable bottles). Then enact or expand state bottle bills to cover bottled water, sports drinks, and teas. The 11 states with bottle bills recover more than twice as many containers as states without such laws.

Corporate Accountability International, one of the largest pressure groups working to wean individuals from bottled water and help local governments quit spending taxpayer money to provide it, applauds Concord’s ban. But it does so in the service of a larger point, emphasizing the town’s “commitment to protecting public water supplies.” The fact that tap water is readily available to everyone doesn’t mean it costs nothing. Indeed, CAI notes, Massachusetts last year spent $930,000 on bottled water (down from a high of $1.02 million in 2008) even as it struggles to come up with the $8.5 billion it will need to repair and upgrade its water infrastructure over the next two decades. The nation’s water systems face $335 billion in repairs over the same period. If Concord residents are drinking their tap water, shouldn’t they be willing to fight for it?

Whether people will actually make that connection—between shunning the bottle and supporting the tap—remains to be seen. The next time Concord Public Works asks for a rate increase to cover maintenance and upgrades to keep the town’s water tasty and healthful, the public will likely scream bloody murder, just as we do everywhere else. We’re happy to pay more than $50 a month for cell phones or lattes, but raising the annual water tab by that amount is, apparently, beyond the pale in many municipalities. It takes political will to face down the objectors, raise rates, and pursue more public funding to improve water quality for everyone.

Over the last two decades, water bottlers have spent hundreds of millions of dollars molding the public to think their product is better than what comes from the tap. If we continue to ignore our public water systems, bottlers won’t need to worry about initiatives like Jean Hill’s, and they may not need to advertise at all.

Elizabeth Royte is the author most recently of Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It. Her writing has appeared in Harper's, National Geographic, Outside, The New York Times Magazine, and other publications.