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Monday, November 12, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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The newest public enemy: bottled water

The Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA — Bottled water, once an icon of a healthy lifestyle, has become a pariah, the environmentally incorrect Humvee of beverages.

In recent months, dissent over the once innocuous bottle of Aquafina or Dasani has grown from a trickle to a tsunami.

Not just among enviros who decry the 1.5 million barrels of oil used to make a year's worth of bottles. (Plus more to transport it from, in the case of Tasmanian Rain, the end of the earth.)

And not just among pragmatists who cringe at the absurdity of paying $1.50 for bottled when tap is all but free.

Dreamalee Brotz, a special-education teacher at Plymouth Whitemarsh High School in Plymouth Meeting, Pa., only had to look at her family's water bottles piling up in the recycling bin to reconsider what she was doing.

She bought a refillable Nalgene bottle — the new icon of a healthy and environmentally correct lifestyle.

"I feel better about myself, and I'm saving money."

Throughout the region, tap water is getting a boost from college events and eco-campaigns.

Bottled water — a $10.9 billion-a-year industry in the United States — has even emerged as a moral issue, a peace issue.

"We are called by our faith stance," said Sister Sharon Dillon, a former executive director of the Franciscan Federation in Washington, D.C., as she pledged to forgo Deer Park, Poland Spring and all the others.

For her, it's a matter of equitable access. A billion people worldwide don't have safe drinking water, one in five of them children.

Americans, on the other hand, with near total access, are bingeing on bottled of every sort, from the handheld variety to the office jugs. We swigged 8.25 billion gallons in 2006 — an average of 28 gallons per person.

Dillon spoke at a teleconference organized by the advocacy group Corporate Accountability International, which sees bottled water as a corporate abuse — the takeover of a natural resource that should belong to everyone.

The group wants people to "Think Outside the Bottle" and, like Dillon, pledge not to drink it.

Canada's Polaris Group, which advocates for social change, wants people to take a look at what's inside the bottle. According to Beverage Marketing, more than 40 percent is filtered or treated tap water.

Last month, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed legislation requiring water labels to specify the source, beginning in 2009.

The Women's International League for Peace and Freedom has launched a three-year "Save the Water" campaign, on the notion that drinking bottled water encourages privatization, which can lead to wars over water.

In the spring, Food & Water Watch, a nonprofit consumer-rights organization, released a numbers-laden report, "Take Back the Tap,' aiming to show why tap water "is better for your health, your pocketbook and the environment."

Taking advantage of the hoopla, American Water Works has launched an ad campaign to plug the value of public water systems nationwide, which require $300 billion just to maintain the pipes.

The bottled-water industry doesn't see the debate as either-or. Bottled is just often more convenient, said Joe Doss, president of the International Bottled Water Association. Its surveys indicate that three-fourths of people who drink bottled also drink tap.

Doss said campaigns against bottled water could result in less water overall going down the national gullet, a health issue.

He said that the plastic in bottles had gone down 40 percent in five years, and that while some bottles wound up in landfills, they were only a minuscule proportion.

Public officials are acting.

In June, the U.S. Conference of Mayors decided to study the impact of bottled water on city waste streams.

The Container Recycling Institute says 86 percent of water bottles — maybe 2 million tons of plastic a year — wind up as litter or in landfills instead of recycling bins.

San Francisco and perhaps a dozen other cities have canceled purchasing contracts.

Bottled water "very clearly reflects the wasteful and reckless consumerism in this country," Salt Lake City Mayor Ross Anderson said.

Chicago is mulling a tax. New York launched an ad campaign. Louisville, Ky., adopted a mascot — Tapper.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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