Bottled Water Gets the Boot
1. Days of Water and Roses
The couple peruses the menu from plushly pillowed pods set along the perimeter of a Zen-like reflection pond. After they decide on wok-fried lobster with coconut foam and grilled Florida pompano in curry sauce, the only choice remaining is whether they should pair their dishes with a bottle from Gleneagle Estate (described as "slightly tart" and "fantastic with shellfish") or the Gerolsteiner from Germany ("perfect for bold dishes as well as foods from the grill or rotisserie"). But the selections aren't high-end wines; they're water.
That was 2005, and the introduction of bottled-water menus at haute establishments such as The Restaurant at The Setai in South Beach seemed a sign that the surge of this marketing miracle would never slacken. Americans quaffed 7.5 billion gallons of bottled water that year, up 10.7 percent from the previous year, and a far cry from the 254 gallons washed down in 1976, when Perrier first thrust the single-serving bottle onto the U.S. market.
Recently, however, a rising resistance has been splattering cold water on the hitherto omnipotent (but still hot) industry. Opponents such as the Sierra Club are spurred by the four billion plastic bottles that end up in landfills each year, which also generate more than two and a half million tons of carbon dioxide and require the energy equivalent of 17 million barrels of oil to make — enough to top the gas tanks of more than a million cars.
With politicians hopping onto the little green bandwagon as well, the U.S. Conference of Mayors convened two months ago in Miami and adopted Resolution 70, encouraging cities "to phase out, where feasible, government use of bottled water and promote the importance of municipal water." Mayor Manny Diaz, president of the conference, says he cosponsored the measure because he believes "cities are sending the wrong message about the quality of public water ... and are generating unnecessary waste." The national tax-funded cost to rid landfills of the plastic water bottle menace is estimated to be about $70 million annually.
A small but simmering national movement to banish bottled water in restaurants has spilled from east (Mario Batali's Del Posto) to west (Alice Waters's Chez Panisse) — and now to Miami, where establishments such as Pacific Time, Fratelli Lyon, and Jaguar Ceviche Spoon Bar & Latam Grill serve their own filtered tap instead.
Even the Presbyterians for Restoring Creation and the 1,200-member National Coalition of American Nuns counsel their congregations to abstain from purchasing bottled water, on the moral grounds that essential God-given resources should not be privatized.
As if renunciation by nuns isn't bad enough news for the bottled-water barons, a sinking economy is steering the public toward eau de tap too. Jonathan Eismann, chef/owner of Pacific Time, can't fathom why "people are complaining about gas being $4.50 a gallon. Meanwhile they're paying nine bucks a gallon for water."
In retrospect, The Setai's haute water menu — since discontinued — might well have signaled the moment when water-in-a-bottle jumped the shark.
2. Water Is Water
"Water is water," Garrison Keillor once wrote. "If you want lemon flavoring, add a slice of lemon. You want bubbles, stick a straw in it and blow." This is more or less the message of Think Outside the Bottle (TOTB), a campaign aimed at swaying city officials, businesses, and the public to ban the bottle and turn on the tap.
Deborah Lapidus, age 26, is national organizer for Boston-based Corporate Accountability International, the organization leading the TOTB efforts. Nick Denning, CAI's 23-year-old assistant director of environment in Florida, sits across the table from her at a Lincoln Road café. Denning is a local, but Lapidus came to Miami to attend the mayors' conference and press for approval of the water measure. While elated it "passed with flying colors," she knows the next step is "to follow through" and see whether the cities actually enforce it.
Mayor Diaz tells New Times she needn't concern herself with Miami. "Even before the resolution, we had already adopted our own ordinance where we banned the purchase of plastic water containers that are less than two liters — except in the event of an emergency." The bill Diaz signed last November was initiated by city Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, who is working with a newly created Office of Sustainable Initiatives to "explore other measures" such as "researching bottle deposit legislation and various types of container law legislation."
It was two years ago in Austin, Texas, when Lapidus first dipped her toes into the bottled-water morass. "Hardly anyone had heard of bottled water being an issue back then," she recalls. After "a lot of public education," as well as a lot of organizing, some 300 volunteers embarked on a mission to spread the word county by county. Austin has since passed the same type of bottle legislation as Miami, and this grassroots strategy is being employed to similar effect across the nation.
Lapidus and Denning take turns with talking points, often expressed by way of illustrative statistical comparisons. For instance, Lapidus paints the pocketbook issue thusly: "A family of three who rely exclusively on bottled water will, by the time the first child is 18, have already spent the equivalent of that child's college education in a public university on that water."
They've got a million of 'em.
Because of their backgrounds in international studies, the two are quick to place corporate control of water in a broader worldwide context — which can be summed up by saying that for one of six people on the planet, there is water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink.
When conversation drifts back to the domestic, Denning notes that Nestlé typically gets its product from "underground sources in economically depressed communities." A young couple seated at the next table, sipping from bottles of Nestlé's Zephyrhills water, casts resentful expressions our way, no less disdainful than had we been flashing slaughterhouse photos while they were trying to enjoy steak dinners.
Thirsty foreigners, cloddish carbon footprints, and the minutia of municipal law might not whet the public's whisker, but one thing that has mustered outrage is the notion that up to 40 percent of all bottled water comes from the faucet — or, more specifically, from your tax-funded municipal water supply.
"People feel duped," Denning says. "We pay the money to get clean public water, and corporations are taking advantage of that and selling it back to us at thousands of times the price. We are, in effect, subsidizing the industry." He is speaking here not of high-end imported brands, which are steeped in problems of their own, but those such as Coca-Cola-owned Dasani, the water for which is fished from Broward County aquifers and bottled on Pembroke Road in Hollywood.
3. Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing
The Pembroke plant is a foreboding structure: huge, windowless, and sealed by tall chainlink fencing that in one section is crowned with barbed wire. A barricade of red tape likewise protects the property; protocol for getting past public relations is seemingly more stringent than that of the Pentagon's War Room: no interviews with management granted, no access to the premises permitted.
The Coca-Cola Company's guardedness is in keeping with the surreptitious nature of the industry regarding its product sourcing (which isn't specified on labels) and safety (unlike public water systems, there is no requirement to report breaches in quality). In other words, the water biz lacks transparency.
Dasani's Florida stock comes from Broward County, which buys its water from the City of Hollywood Water Treatment Plant, which secures its supply from the Biscayne and Floridan aquifers. It has been estimated that the average bulk cost paid for public water is between one and two cents a gallon. At a Publix supermarket in Miami Beach, a 20-ounce single-serve bottle of Dasani costs, with tax, $1.50 — or $10 to $20 a gallon, about 500 to 1,000 times the price.
Coca-Cola doesn't sell the water as is, because then it would have to attach the dull "bottled water" label. By putting the product through a secondary purification process known as reverse osmosis, the company can call it a more pedigreed "purified." "Each water has its own flavor due to mineral content and that sort of thing," says Martha Harbin, executive director of the Florida Beverage Association. "Reverse osmosis removes all of that and takes water down to its natural essence. Then some of those minerals are added back in to create a product that tastes the same, regardless of where you purchase your water from."
Consistency is indeed one of two irrefutable advantages that bottled water has over tap; convenience is the other. Harbin, who at the behest of Coca-Cola called New Times from Tallahassee as a stand-in spokesperson (one who "couldn't speak for The Coca-Cola Company, only for the industry"), was stymied when asked if there were any additional reasons for people to purchase something they can otherwise get for free.
"Well, it's healthy that you should be drinking water," she said, "which isn't a reason to drink just bottled water, but to drink water in general."
Convenience can also be had with refillable water bottles — many efficient models are now on the market — or even with a return of public drinking fountains. But what about the consistency of "free" water? Traveling from Tallahassee to Tampa, you'll be tapping into many very different sources — and some municipal systems are more efficient than others. What's in your faucet?
If you live in Miami-Dade, what's in your faucet isn't much different from the stuff that glugs from those large plastic jugs of Publix-brand water. "All they do is put it through a carbon filter and bottle it," says Cuban native Ralph Terrero, who for the past two and a half years has served as assistant director of water operations for the Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Department (WASD). Terrero, age 43, is part of the team charged with ensuring enough potable water to quench the needs of a quickly overflowing population.
Miami's drinking water, like much of Hollywood's, originates from the Biscayne Aquifer, a porous limestone formation located just below the ground's surface (barely a few feet down in most spots). The water that seeps through the aquifers' nooks and crannies becomes the "groundwater" that provides county residents with approximately 347 million gallons of drinkable H2O a day.
But as water ever-so-slowly flows through the aquifer (at a rate of about two feet per day), it dissolves naturally occurring minerals and picks up unsavory waste from animals and humans. Because of its proximity to the ground's surface, the Biscayne Aquifer is especially susceptible to such contamination, and to potential pollutants such as hazardous chemicals, storm water runoff, waste disposal sites, and underground storage tanks.
That's why public water passes through numerous purifying stages before getting released. "We do about 15,000 tests a year," touts Terrero, who is quick to proclaim Miami-Dade "exceeds both state and federal drinking-water standards." His boasts are backed — and itemized — by a quality data chart contained within the 2007 Water Quality Report, mailed this summer to every Miami-Dade home receiving a water bill.
WASD's two main water treatment facilities are the John E. Preston plant, which serves residents north of Flagler Street to the Miami-Dade/Broward line, and the Alexander Orr plant, which replenishes those living south to SW 248th Street. Each plant pumps water from the wells, softens it through lime treatment, filters it, disinfects it, and finally sends it through 7,000 miles of pipes (and some meticulous metering), after which it falls (with a flick of the wrist) in a final cascade into our sinks.
Ralph is so impressed with the WASD purification system that he drinks unfiltered tap in his house. "The filter people will try to sell [devices] to you, but the water is clean and soft enough that you don't need it. You shouldn't spend your money on that."
If the Environmental Protection Agency is a sturdy bowl filled to the brim with safety regulations regarding public drinking water, the Food and Drug Administration is a leaky colander of bottled-water oversight. "Their sampling is a lot less than what we do," Terrero says of the FDA. Worse, waters packaged and sold within the same state are exempt, allowing 60 to 70 percent of all bottled water purchased in America to escape FDA rules entirely.
In the case of Dasani, however, along with most other brands, the argument about underregulation doesn't hold much you-know-what. And that's because taxpayers foot the bill to filter it before the bottled-water producers ever lay their hands on it.
The City of Hollywood Water Treatment Plant undergoes the same eagle-eyed EPA monitoring as that in Miami-Dade. As a matter of fact, the Hollywood plant was a 2007 Drinking Water Treatment Plant Award winner, cited for its dedication to public health and the environment by Florida DEP's Division of Water Resource Management. So the water Dasani puts in its bottles has already been tested many times by the EPA, whether it gets a scant secondary scan by the FDA or not.
Again, just like the water from your tap.
But can anyone even taste the difference between bottled and faucet? In 2003, an NBC 6 news team gathered samples from a dozen neighborhoods served by various water systems, along with three bottled waters, and took them to STL Labs in Miramar. Each specimen was subjected to 126 different tests, and all easily surpassed the minimal government standards of purity; bottled scored better in some categories, public-sourced water in others. The TV station also conducted a blind taste test with Dasani, Zephyrhills, and plain old tap. One out of three participants could differentiate among them.
The same odds as a guess.
4. Unfiltered Opinions
Eduardo "Lalo" Durazo, managing partner of Jaguar Ceviche in Coconut Grove, was the first Miami restaurateur to kick the bottle. "I thought, Why pollute the environment when in the end, it's really just tap water inside? It doesn't make any sense." Lalo first got the idea a couple of years ago while perusing People magazine. "There was an article about a restaurant in San Francisco that served their own filtered water. I said, 'I think that's good. We should do it.' So we installed a very high-tech filtering system." He is speaking of Natura, a $6,000 European machine that not only charcoal-filters the water multiple times, purifies it, and chills it to 38 degrees, but also produces carbonation to whatever desired degree of effervescence.
While the main impetus for the move was environmental, Lalo also lauds it for providing patrons with value. "In a lot of restaurants, immediately when the customer sits down at the table, the first thing they get asked is: 'Do you want sparkling or flat?' If you ask for water, instead of bringing you a glass, they bring a $16 bottle of water. And it's just for the purpose of selling — and selling you more."
Customer reaction has been wholly positive. "We get about a dozen comments a week, but have not heard one single complaint. I feel good about it, and I'm glad that people are appreciative." Durazo has paid a price for his principled stand, though. "We're losing maybe $1,500 a month on money we were making selling bottles."
Jonathan Eismann is also sacrificing a steady stream of revenue at his new Design District establishment. "We were selling over 10,000 bottles a year," he says, referring to Pacific Time on Lincoln Road, before it closed last year. "The profit was more than three bucks a bottle, so you're looking at $30,000 or $40,000."
Like Lalo, Eismann uses the Natura system, and to equally unanimous approval among his guests. He isn't surprised. "First of all, we're not importing a product. I mean, 10,000 bottles a year from Pacific Time has gotta be a 747-load of water — or half a freighter, whatever. That's just one restaurant. And on top of that there is the waste."
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.
But since the cap has been popped off the industry by consumers, activists, and a limping economy, sales have begun to go flat. In 2007, those 70 million daily bottles, when measured by volume, represented a 6.1 percent increase over the previous year — the lowest rate of growth since 1992. And Coca-Cola cut its outlook for the current quarter, blaming a weak North American economy that has bottlenecked water and soda sales — especially 20-ounce single-serving sizes.
Numbers aside, what has to be most distressing for the industry is that the cachet of bottled water, a product so iconic as to have recently been described by the New York Times as "an iPod for your kidney," is in danger of slipping away. Not surprisingly, the beverage business is strenuously attempting to keep protest from growing into a major backlash — and doing so by wielding the same weapon that stimulated the public's thirst in the first place.
Marketing: Now available in vibrant green.
"Sip with a clear conscience," reads recent promos for Fiji water, a "truly eco-friendly" drink. Zephyrhills' label boasts of being "a celebration of what's most natural about Florida." PepsiCo really pours it on, touting a partnership with a program "that transformed recycled Aquafina bottles into 100,000 fleece jackets for children." Dasani and Aquafina alone spent $43.4 million in advertising last year.
To be fair, more is being done than just superimposing eco-evocative words on images of glistening mountain streams. The big three nowadays all use lighter-weight containers. Aquafina says its 35 percent slimmer bottle prevents 45 million pounds of plastic from landing in the dump each year.
Coca-Cola's newly greened portfolio includes contributions to some 70 public water projects in 40 countries, construction of the world's largest plastic bottle recycling plant (expected to open next year in Spartanburg, South Carolina), and 142 hybrid delivery trucks, 10 of which debuted in South Florida last month (at a cost of $85,000 each). These might be drops in the bucket for the cola conglomerate, but encouraging drops — even if the motivation matches one of Eismann's: a matter of doing so before it has to.
Think Outside the Bottle is trying its best to make them feel as if they have to, and picking up powerful converts along the way. Manny Diaz is one. Though late to the recycling parade, the mayor arrived early and at the forefront of the national movement to do away with city spending on disposable bottles.
"Regular tap water is just fine," he says with a chuckle that suggests a stating of the obvious. "But we live in a marketing world." According to the city's purchasing department, the new anti-bottled policy resulted in a savings of more than $10,000 between November and July, compared to the same period in 2007.
In one of its clearest victories to date, TOTB pressured PepsiCo into agreeing to print "Public Water Source" on its Aquafina label. "If this helps clarify the fact that the water originates from public sources, then it's a reasonable thing to do," says Michelle Naughton, a Pepsi spokesperson. Ray Crockett, her counterpart at Coca-Cola, disagrees. "The FDA's definition of purified water does not require [disclosing] the source," he has been quoted as saying. "We believe consumers know what they're buying."
Or at least some do. Probably about the same percentage as those who know that Evian spelled backward is naive.
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