Bottled Water Gets the Boot

As containers and costs mount, tap water is the rule in eateries.

Last year, Americans disposed of 22 billion plastic water bottles, roughly 85 percent of which ended up in landfills — and probably a higher rate in Miami-Dade, where, as Eismann says, "the recycling program is fairly lame."

Mayor Diaz doesn't entirely disagree. "Unfortunately we don't have a very high recycling rate," he admits. He points out that county code states "all multifamily residential establishments must provide recycling programs for their occupant," and then adds, "It's not being enforced. And it should be." Asked if anything is going to be done to address this, Diaz's office responds that a joint letter from the city and county directors of solid waste "will be going out shortly" to inform property managers that recycling is required. Additionally the county has hired "seven individuals to survey establishments to see if they have recycling facilities or not."

Miami's director of communications, Kelly Penton, tosses out a few more minor maneuvers. "The city restarted recycling at its main administrative building and city hall, with plans to expand to additional city buildings in the near future," she says, adding that recycling bins will be provided "at all city-hosted events and major festivals," including the Coconut Grove Arts Festival ("for the first time"). As for Sarnoff's inquiry into bottle deposit legislation: It is, at the moment, just that. Clearly our city's recycling solutions are not going to have an impact on the plastic waste problem anytime soon.

In the meanwhile, Eismann is intent on "turning the tables" on the bottle boom that he acknowledges "began when water appeared on the menus of high-end restaurants like ours." Yet a sense of pragmatism seeps into his decision as well. "With the cost of fuel going up the way it is, to put a bottle of water on the table by the end of the year is likely to cost $15. To tell you the truth, I'm doing this before I have to."

Just a few blocks from Pacific Time is Fratelli Lyon, another neighborhood newcomer. Proprietor Ken Lyon uses the same filtration system, for the same reasons, with the same buoyant response. Fratelli's flat water is complimentary; a one-liter bottle of carbonated goes for $3.50. If you want lemon flavoring, add a slice of lemon — or order housemade Meyer lemon soda.

Eismann has received feedback from his peers. "But honestly, the majority of them are afraid to lose the revenue." He is not without empathy. "Look, we're in business; we've got to make money. But at the same time, it's 2008."

Which is a long way from the early Nineties, when Eismann, Lyon, and Michael Schwartz, now namesake chef/owner of Michael's Genuine Food and Drink, were pioneering restaurateurs of a not-yet-resuscitated South Beach. Schwartz sells high-end Italian imports such as Panna and Pellegrino at his establishment, and admits, "Water sales are very profitable. We pay less than $1.50 a bottle and sell it for $5 or $6." He adds, truthfully if a bit defensively, "We're on the low side of the scale."

As a chef who has been ahead of others in terms of eco-consciousness, Schwartz would appear to be a natural proponent of the turn-on-the-tap movement. Philosophically, at least, he is. "I'm willing to eat the profits [on water]. I mean, when you think about it, it's ridiculous. We spend all that energy and money to package the water and fly it from Italy. I'm almost embarrassed by it." Yet while he is ready to dive into the boycott of bottled water, one thing has stopped him from taking the plunge. "We looked at that Natura system and loved everything about it," he says, "except it irradiates the water. What's that all about?"

UV technology is an increasingly popular replacement for chlorine as a primary water disinfectant, believed to be especially effective in eliminating E. coli and coliform bacteria. But irradiation, much like fluoridation, carries controversial connotations. Schwartz doesn't feign to know the specific side effects of zapping tap, but maintains that "when they irradiate produce, it kills a lot of the beneficial enzymes." Eismann glows with indignation at the idea. "That's bullcrap," he opines. "I've done a lot of research and there is absolutely no negative impact from drinking water that's been filtered with UV. All municipal water is purified with UV light."

Not quite. There are public waterworks around the nation that have instituted irradiation treatments, but Terrero says Miami-Dade has not; Taylor "Bud" Calhoun, water treatment plant manager at the Hollywood facility, says neither has Broward. And although some bottled water, such as Aquafina, goes through UV filtering, bottled-water industry spokesperson Harbin insists Dasani does not.

"Stop the nuking and I'm all in," Schwartz says.

5. The Empire Strikes Back

Bottlemania ain't dead yet. Three out of four Americans drink bottled water, with 20 percent preferring it exclusively over tap.

We consume more plastic-bound H2O per capita than any other nation in the world. Last year, this unbridled swilling translated to more than 70 million bottles per day, at a cost of nearly $11 billion. To funnel it down more: Dasani, with sales of $1.6 billion, was America's best-selling brand, while PepsiCo's Aquafina sopped up $1.47 billion for second spot; these two labels, along with Nestlé's three top sellers, composed 60 percent of the U.S. market. Not bad for the big boys of the beverage world, especially considering how slow on the sip they were: Pepsi didn't roll out Aquafina until 1994, and Coke took an ice age of five additional years to answer with Dasani.

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