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San Francisco Works to Curb Bottled Water Waste

August 21, 2007 at 6:30 PM EST
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SPENCER MICHELS, NewsHour Correspondent: When San Francisco’s mayor, Gavin Newsom, takes tour groups around City Hall these days, he stops to show off a newly installed water cooler dispensing filtered tap water.

GAVIN NEWSOM, Mayor of San Francisco: Do you want to indulge, since you’re part of the bottled water generation? Want me to issue you a glass?

This is a glass, and that’s water without a bottle. All right, now taste that, and let’s see how you feel. How does it taste? Unbelievable.

SPENCER MICHELS: In June, Newsom decreed that all city departments will no longer be allowed to buy any bottled water. Thirsty city employees will now drink filtered tap water. He calls it an environmental move that will save money.

The mayor himself used to drink water imported from the South Pacific until the environmental consequences were dramatically pointed out to him by an aide.

GAVIN NEWSOM: And he brought back a new bottle of Fiji water with a big package or bag of it, of oil surrounding it, and said, “Here’s what you’re actually consuming.” I said, “What are you talking about?” Because that what it costs, the oil to produce the bottle, the distribution costs to get it from Fiji to the United States, this is what you’re doing to Planet Earth.

SPENCER MICHELS: Newsom claims that 47 million gallons of oil are needed to make the plastic water bottles used in America. Others put the figure much higher. He is leading a move among mayors aimed at reducing or eliminating American consumption of bottled water.

Americans drank more than 8 billion gallons of bottled water last year with a wholesale value of nearly $11 billion. Per capita consumption for the year was 27.6 gallons, according to the International Bottled Water Association. Joseph Doss is its president.

JOSEPH DOSS, International Bottled Water Association: Consumers continue to demand bottled water. And the growth rate for bottled water is approximately 9.5 percent last year. We think bottled water is a safe, healthy, convenient beverage that consumers are using to stay hydrated, and I think that any efforts to discourage that are not in the public interest.

Environmentalist fight waste

Sarah Janssen
Natural Resources Defense Council
Bottled water is just as safe as tap water. It's not any safer or purer. And, in fact, it has a very high financial and environmental cost, probably one that the bottlers would prefer that we didn't think about.

SPENCER MICHELS: Environmentalists insist it is in the public interest to discourage the buying of bottled water. These activists with Corporate Accountability International are trying to convince Boston consumers that tap water tastes as good or better than bottled water.

They claim that 40 percent of all bottled water is purified municipal tap water. And that includes the two biggest sellers, Coke's Dasani and Pepsi's Aquafina. Recently, Aquafina, under pressure from environmentalists, agreed it would print "public water source" on its bottles, while insisting that its filters improve what comes out of the tap.

Is bottled water any more or less safe than tap water?

SARAH JANSSEN, Natural Resources Defense Council: Bottled water is just as safe as tap water. It's not any safer or purer. And, in fact, it has a very high financial and environmental cost, probably one that the bottlers would prefer that we didn't think about.

SPENCER MICHELS: Sarah Janssen is a staff scientist and physician at the National Resources Defense Council.

SARAH JANSSEN: In the past three years, the amount of water that's imported into the U.S. has doubled. It creates a lot of pollution to transport the water. It uses a lot of energy to make the bottles, and we create a lot of trash when we are disposing of the bottles. And most of the bottles aren't even recycled.

Finding a recycling solution

Dennis Sabourin
Plastic Bottle Industry
For PET plastics, that is into fiber applications for uses like carpeting, ski jackets, filling for pillows, being used to make automotive parts, durable goods, being used to make bottles once again.

SPENCER MICHELS: The plastic bottle industry concedes that only about 23 percent are recycled; the rest end up in landfills, which has become a major argument against bottled water. But the solution, bottle makers argue, isn't to get rid of bottled water, but to encourage recycling.

How long does it take to fill up the trailer?

RECYCLER: Eight days.

SPENCER MICHELS: Eight days?

Dennis Sabourin heads a trade group that promotes the use of bottles made with a thin plastic called PET. He claims recycling actually reduces the need for virgin plastic in other products.

DENNIS SABOURIN, Plastic Bottle Industry Spokesperson: The plastic bottles are being recycled into a number of different end uses. For PET plastics, that is into fiber applications for uses like carpeting, ski jackets, filling for pillows, being used to make automotive parts, durable goods, being used to make bottles once again.

SPENCER MICHELS: Sabourin, a retired chemist, says his industry's bottles ensure the safety and health of the water and are lighter than glass containers.

DENNIS SABOURIN: The reason we have the packages, the consumer has asked for it. It is a safe package; it is a light-weight package.

SPENCER MICHELS: But in Sausalito, across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, at Poggio, an upscale restaurant, consumers don't seem to mind drinking tap water. They're offered without charge two carafes of filtered tap water, one still, one sparkling.

This restaurant doesn't serve bottled water.

CUSTOMER: I'm not depressed.

SPENCER MICHELS: Several other restaurants throughout the country have recently followed suit.

CUSTOMER: I'll have the sparkling, as well, thank you.

A solution in restaurants

Larry Mindel
Owner, Poggio Restaurant
A waiter would approach a table, and he would say, 'Do you want the sparkling, or do you want the still water?' And so I felt intimidated, I would stay sparkling or still.

SPENCER MICHELS: Poggio owner Larry Mindel says his motivation for scraping bottled water when he opened the restaurant three years ago was environmental, but he also wanted to make his customers feel at ease.

LARRY MINDEL, Poggio Trattoria: A waiter would approach a table, and he would say, "Do you want the sparkling, or do you want the still water?" And so I felt intimidated, I would stay sparkling or still, because I would never say...

SPENCER MICHELS: "Tap water."

LARRY MINDEL: Yes, "tap water," because it makes you kind of look like a cheapskate.

SPENCER MICHELS: You're a restaurant owner. And from what I've read, the profit margin on bottled water is pretty high.

LARRY MINDEL: It is. It's very high.

SPENCER MICHELS: You buy it for a dollar or two a bottle, and sell it for...

LARRY MINDEL: Well, two or three, and you sell it for eight or nine or so.

SPENCER MICHELS: Wow.

Much of the Bay Area's municipal water comes from San Francisco's Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, high in the Sierra at Yosemite National Park. Officials tout it as among the best and purest waters around, though many municipalities also have good water. The city even tried bottling Hetch Hetchy water for a short period as a promotional effort.

Now, to avoid the plastic one-use bottles, San Francisco is promoting and using a system that is already available for consumers in a growing number of grocery stores: a dispenser hooked up to a series of filters in the back of the store to remove impurities, some from old pipes, and chemicals from the tap water. Customers bring their own bottles and pay $0.49 a gallon. This model is built by U.S. Pure Water Corporation, whose president is Michael Davis.

MICHAEL DAVIS, U.S. Pure Water Corp.: In the Bay Area, most of the disinfection systems that are being used is chloramination, which is a mixture of chlorine and ammonia.

SPENCER MICHELS: The cities put that into the water in order to kill the bugs.

MICHAEL DAVIS: Yes, that's correct. Yes, and it's good that they do that in order to prevent waterborne diseases, but once they've done that, there are some taste and odor issues that are associated with that.

Taking legislative action

Joseph Doss
International Bottled Water Association
The California bill is trying to force bottled water companies into a system that was made for municipal source waters, and there's a big difference there, and that is that consumers have no choice about which tap water comes into their houses.

SPENCER MICHELS: The battle isn't only about taste. Critics say that bottled water is not nearly as regulated as municipal water. With that in mind, California lawmakers are debating a bill that would require bottlers to state the source of their water and to compile a report detailing results of water-quality tests, the same standards the Environmental Protection Agency requires of tap water.

Several bottled water representatives spoke against the bill, arguing that the Food and Drug Administration already regulates bottled water and that's enough. The International Bottled Water Association is watching the battle carefully.

JOSEPH DOSS: The California bill is trying to force bottled water companies into a system that was made for municipal source waters, and there's a big difference there, and that is that consumers have no choice about which tap water comes into their houses.

However, consumers do have a choice about which bottled water brand they choose to drink. So if consumers are not satisfied with the information that they've gotten upon request, they can choose another bottled water brand.

SPENCER MICHELS: Mayor Newsom has made his choice, but it's been a struggle.

You're off the bottled water?

GAVIN NEWSOM: I'm working on it. It's not easy. I've got a bottled water addiction like everybody else. It's just so bloody convenient. But at least I'm thinking about it more, and we've got -- as I say, we've got to practice what we preach.

SPENCER MICHELS: San Francisco expects to save up to $6 million over the next decade by not buying bottled water. Still, sales of bottled water continue to rise. But the industry is clearly concerned and is stressing how healthy it is to drink water. Nobody's arguing with that.