Water wars 

Do you prefer the bottle or the tap?

click to enlarge H20: Water or tap?
  • H20: Water or tap?

HOT SPRINGS — Breck Speed hates this sort of thing.

“The Natural Resources Defense Council has estimated that bottled water is between 240 and 10,000 more times expensive than tap water. For Coca-Cola's Dasani and Pepsi's Aquafina, products drawn from municipal taps, this price markup is astonishing. [Dasani is drawn from Little Rock's municipal taps.] Nestle pays little for the water it takes out of groundwater streams and aquifers. Bottled water is quite simply water transformed into water. … Bottled-water plants are likely to be inspected only once every four to five years. Public water systems like New York City's exemplary one undergo stringent checks every four hours.”

That was Karl Flecker writing in The American Prospect magazine under the headline, “Backlash Against Bottled Water,” and there's only one part of it Speed agrees with: A backlash against bottled water is indeed under way. It's an undeserved, misguided backlash, in Speed's view, but real nonetheless.

“Three groups of people have come out against bottled water over the last 18 months,” Speed says. “There's the municipal water people, the mayors and the waterworks commissioners. They're afraid that if people are happy drinking bottled water, they won't be willing to spend money on maintaining and improving city water supplies. Then there are the environmentalists, like the Sierra Club. They see all plastic as evil. [Most bottled water is sold in plastic bottles. The Natural Resources Defense Council is an environmental group also.] Third, you have the people who sell home filtration systems.” Some of these groups don't sound like natural allies, Speed notes. “But you know what they say: ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend.' ”

Speed is the chairman and chief executive officer of Mountain Valley Spring Company, whose principal product is Mountain Valley Spring Water. “America's Premium Bottled Water” is its slogan. He does his chairing and executing in a handsome old building on Central Avenue. “America's Premium Bottled Water Offices,” we'd bet. The first floor is open to tourists.

But the headquarters is under fire, figuratively, and from up close as well as long-range. One of the mayors who's spoken out against bottled water is Dan Coody of Fayetteville. Just returned from a national mayors conference in New York, Coody called a press conference a few weeks ago to ask Fayetteville residents to drink tap water instead of bottled water. One of his objections is to the environmental pollution of discarded bottles. The Sierra Club says that Americans throw away 30 million water bottles a day, and that only 13 percent of water bottles are reused or recycled.

Eleven states have “bottle bills,” requiring consumers to put up a deposit, usually a nickel a bottle. The deposit is returned when the bottle is returned for recycling. A bottle bill was introduced in the Arkansas legislature a few years back. The bottlers crushed it. Grocers also objected to the bill, saying they had no place to store returned bottles, and that empty soft-drink bottles draw flies. Coody supported that bill. He knows of no plans for another.

Speed agrees that “too much” bottled-water packaging is discarded. “The Sierra Club would find natural allies in the bottled-water business,” he says. “Most of us are Greens as well. You'll find huge support for recycling in our industry.” Where was that support when a bottle bill was before the Arkansas legislature?

Bottle bills don't solve the litter problem, Speed says. “If you really want to do the job, you have to have mandatory curbside recycling.” That way, he says, not only can the bottles be saved for recycling, but so can the cardboard, and the peanut butter jars, “and all that huge amount of stuff we throw away. If it's a good idea, let's capture all that stuff.”



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