Food & Water Watch organizer Noelle Ferdon knows that bottled water is hard on the Earth, not to mention consumers wallets. This awareness inspired her as she spearheaded the Food & Water Watch effort to free the Aug. 29 though Sept. 1, 2008 Slow Food Nation gathering from H2O packaged in plastic. Instead of drinking bottled water, the 60,000 people in San Francisco to attend the sessions showcasing sustainable agriculture and healthful eating quenched their thirst with fresh, delicious tap water from the City by the Bay. Providing water for the event jibed with Food & Water Watch‚ campaign urging consumers, the country and the world to kick the bottled water habit and, instead, Take Back the Tap.
“We were trying to get water to thousands of people, but also trying to get the message to thousands of people,” said Ferdon, who works in the California office of Food & Water Watch, a non-profit organization dedicated to freeing control of our food, water and marine resources from the clutches of corporations.
Going into the event, Anya Fernald, director of Slow Food Nation, had said she wanted ‚people to make the connection between the plate and the planet, and that includes drink.” Slow Food Nation is affiliated with Slow Food USA, itself part of a growing global movement dedicated to deepening people‚ understanding of the environmental connection to food.
By all accounts, Food & Water Watch‚ role as Slow Food Nation water caterer, which relied on multiple taps at four water stations positioned in three venues, was a success because it:
- avoided the 100,000 bottles of water that normally would be sold at such an event.
- helped to sell 4,000 stainless steel reusable water bottles made by Klean Kanteen and emblazoned with Food & Water Watch‚ “Take Back the Tap” logo.
The event was such as success that consumers, caterers, conference planners and others are turning to Food & Watch as an authority on planning and executing a conference, workshop or other event without resorting to the bane of bottled water. Its recently published guide takes one through the steps and considerations involved.
Ferdon believes that Slow Food Nation called on Food & Water Watch to cater the water in large part because of its work organizing restaurants to jettison bottled water and instead serve tap water to diners. (The restaurant component of the Take Back the Tap campaign began last year in San Francisco with Ferdon forging key relationships with the City of San Francisco government, particularly the city‚ Public Utilities Commission and the Department of the Environment. Food & Water Watch has since taken the restaurant work nationwide. In some cases, eateries are even making their own bubbly water by installing carbonation machines.
But beyond just the restaurant work, Ferdon says the organizers of Slow Food Nation were impressed by the entire Take Back the Tap campaign and realized that tap water was a natural fit for its Earth-friendly eating and drinking gathering.
“Tap water is the slow water equivalent of slow food,” Slow Food Nation‚ Anya Fernald said in late August. “The goal is for people to leave the event with one, two or three things they can do to change the way they’re eating and interacting with the environment. Tap water is one way to do that.”
The San Francisco PUC eased the nuts-and-bolts work for the Food & Water Watch team by piping water to the two water stations at Civic Center and by using a tanker truck full of water at Slow Food Nation‚ rock concert in the Great Meadow park area above Fort Mason.
U.S. Pure Water Corporation made water service possible by hooking up taps to the water lines. San Francisco-based architects with the firm SMWM designed one of the water stations to have a roof made of plastic bottles and a rear wall that grabbed people‚ attention with its presentation of the problems with bottled water.
But even with the help, “it was a challenge to make sure the message didn’t get lost in the logistics of getting water to people,” Ferdon said.
That meant not only serving water to people but also educating them about the downsides of bottled water.
The sobering tale of bottled water
Bottled water is a rip-off. In 2006, U.S. consumers wasted nearly $10 billion on close to 8 billion gallons of non-sparkling bottled water; almost 5 billion of those gallons were in single-serve PET plastic bottles. On a per gallon basis, bottled water costs anywhere from $0.89 to $8.26, far more than the $0.002 per gallon going rate for clean, healthful tap water.
Perhaps consumers have fallen for the marketing myth that water in a bottle is somehow safer or better than tap water.
It’s not. In fact, U.S. tap water is just as safe as bottled water and, in many cases, more so. The federal government requires far more rigorous and frequent safety monitoring of municipal drinking water than bottled water. Independent testing has found a wide range of heavy metal, microbial and chemical pollutants in bottled water.
Tap water is more strictly regulated than bottled water. The Environmental Protection Agency requires that municipal water be tested hundreds of times a month. And, water systems are required by law to make their testing results available to the public. EPA also mandates that surface sources of tap water be tested for cryptosporidium and, if it‚ found, that the water be disinfected. More than 90 percent of communities met EPA standards this year. For citizens in communities that don’t meet standards, installing a filter at home is the best option.
On the other hand, the Food & Drug Administration has fewer than one full-time staff person overseeing the bottled water industry. The agency requires four empty bottles to be tested for bacteria once every three months and a sample of water to be tested after filtration and before bottling once a week. Bottled water is never tested after bottling and storage, and it is never tested for the chemicals that can leech from the plastic bottle into the water.
And even if FDA wanted to regulate bottled water more stringently, its hands are tied. The agency oversees only interstate sales of bottled water, which are less than half, 30 percent to 40 percent, of all bottled water produced in the United States.
The bottled water record is the model of economic inefficiency and environmental damage from beginning to end.
Producing a 20-ounce bottle of water can require as much as 60 ounces of water. What‚ more, the production and transportation of plastics takes a significant toll on the environment. Annual U.S. plastic bottle production requires more than 17 million barrels of oil, enough to fuel one million vehicles on our roads each year. But that‚ just to make the bottles. The energy used to pump, process, transport and refrigerate bottled water amounts to 50 million barrels of oil, enough to run 3 million cars.
What are the larger implications of using and burning all that energy? For one thing, bottling water produces more than 2.5 million tons of carbon dioxide annually. And that contributes to the ongoing crisis of global climate change.
Unfortunately, the bad news doesn’t stop after the last drop is drained from the bottle. About 86 percent of the empty plastic water bottles in the United States land in the garbage instead of being recycled. That amounts to about two million tons of PET plastic bottles piling up in U.S. landfills each year. Single serve water bottles and other beverage containers, often used on the go, are recycled at a lower rate than containers typically used at home.
The environmentally destructive footprint of the bottled water industry forms part of the frightening industrial waste scenario that threatens our country and the world. According to a recent report from the Institute for Local Self Reliance, Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives and Eco-Cycle: “Wasting directly impacts climate change because it is directly linked to global resource extraction, transportation, processing and manufacturing. When we minimize waste, we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions in sectors that together represent 36.7% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.”
However, we don’t have to be stuck with bottled water. U.S. tap water is as or more clean and safe than bottled water. That said, improvements always are possible. That‚ why Food & Water Watch favors better enforcement of the Clean Water Act and other federal and state laws and regulations meant to protect our source water from pollution. We also strongly urge Congress to pass a federal trust fund to provide billions of dollars over the coming decades to repair, rejuvenate and refine our drinking water and wastewater systems.
Catering that message and lots of San Francisco tap water to the 60,000 Slow Food Nation attendees was a big job, but the Food & Water Watch team of 13 employees and 35 volunteers successfully pulled it off.
Behind the scenes, Noelle Ferdon and the rest of the Food & Water Watch crew had to deal with various logistical and budget issues. For example, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission generously donated branded compostable cups, but even with a three-month advance order, it could not guarantee more than 15,000 cups. Ferdon was concerned that might not be enough cups for all of the people expected to attend, and she didn’t want to seem elitist by offering only the Take Back the Tap stainless steel bottles for sale. It then it became a matter of training the staff and volunteers to encourage reuse of the cups. Ferdon also had Slow Food Nation encourage people to bring their own reusable bottles to refill throughout the weekend.
“We only used 15,000 cups out of 60,000 visitors,” Ferdon said. In addition, 4,000 of the Take Back the Tap bottles were sold over the course of the three-day event. They were such a hit that Slow Food Nation is selling the remaining 1,000 on its website. Food & Water Watch also is selling bottles without the Slow Food Nation logo. They can be ordered online.
In the wake of its successful water-curating project, Food & Water Watch got a call from the California Academy of Sciences about helping to facilitate its bottled water-free event. This event included use of the water station designed by SMWN, and Klean Kanteen sold stainless steel water bottles in an effort to reduce the use of cups.
Slow Food Nation “put us on the map because of the attendance and the message,” Ferdon said. ‚We got at least 2,000 signatures from people pledging to take back the tap.”
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