Plastic bags as model to forgo the bottle

Larisa Manescu

An open forum held last week focused on the proposed citywide plastic bag ban, which aims to reduce the amount of waste in the environment and cut city spending on cleanup programs. Various interest groups have debated the issue for months, and City Council will introduce a draft of the legislation in early November outlining such a ban.

Amid the push for more environmentally friendly bags, Austinites have given little attention to reducing bottled water purchases. In 2008, pitchers of water replaced bottles of water at City Hall Meetings. While this represents a minor step taken by city officials, few have followed their lead. The city has focused more on recycling water bottles rather than reducing their sales, as evidenced by certain initiatives put forward to aid the recycling process, including widespread, accessible recycling containers and the confiscation of empty bottles at concert venues.

Environmentalists often refer to the phrase “reduce, reuse and recycle” to promote their message. However for water bottles, “reduce” is the most productive of these three verbs and the one that should be heavily advocated for. While recycling seems like a viable option, the reality is that only about 15 percent of “custom plastic bottles, which include water, juice, tea and sports drinks” are recycled annually, according to the Container Recycling Institute. Reusing plastic water bottles is not a safe option, as heavy reuse can cause the dangerous leakage of certain chemicals in the plastic container into the water.

Additionally, the heavy carbon footprint that results from manufacturing water bottles for consumer convenience is unsustainable. Former San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, who ordered all city departments and agencies to stop buying bottled water in 2007, told MSNBC that 47 million gallons of oil are consumed annually to produce the bottles. Former Austin Mayor Will Wynn previously expressed that Austin should set a national example for reducing plastic bottle use and that he would consider a ban on most city purchases of bottled water. Progressive movement from the city government has been slow, however.

The bottled water industry is extremely powerful and immense. According to Tom Lauria, vice president of communications for the International Bottled Water Association, the industry’s revenues include $9 billion in stateside sales. However, action to reduce bottled water purchases can be initiated from the bottom — at the consumer level. There is no justifiable reason why personal consumption of bottled water cannot be reduced. Consumers should realize that reducing their purchases would not only aid the environment but also benefit them by putting money back into their wallets.

The consumers’ fixed mindset regarding bottled water is a bizarre phenomenon. A taste test called the “Tap Water Challenge,” carried out earlier this year by American University’s Office of Sustainability and Corporate Accountability International, shed light on the indistinguishable taste difference between tap water and bottled water. The test was particularly targeted at members of Congress, who spend approximately $1 million per year on bottled water. Many Universities across the nation have had similar awareness projects, including University of Maryland’s “Tap That” program, whose goal was to eliminate the preconception that bottled water tastes better than tap water.

Pamela LeBlanc of the Austin American-Statesman recently wrote, “We spend a collective $11.7 billion annually on bottled water when the U.S. has some of the safest, best-testing tap water in the world." More specifically, in a city whose tap water is ranked seventh best of 100, based on data tests run on cities with more than 250,000 people by the Environmental Working Group, Austinites should be embracing the city’s prime tap water.

Apart from the arguments of the better taste or better quality of bottled water, many consumers simply admit that bottled water is more convenient. However, the alternative does not require much effort either; more effort is actually exerted in hauling bottled water cases from the grocery store to the home than in buying a water filter or using water fountains to fill up reusable water bottles. The University should install more retrofit bottle fillers onto the water fountains around campus to incentivize more people to take advantage of these fountains.

The excessive purchase of water bottles is unnecessary, and each person should contribute to the reduction of their usage.

Manescu is an international relations and journalism freshman.