A fizzling flood of facts on Arlington’s H20 habits enlivened the Committee of 100 dinner Jan. 8, as county board chairman/environmentalist Jay Fisette took on a not-all-wet spokesman from the International Bottled Water Association.
The issue: Should we all sign the pledge circulated by the nonprofit Tap in Arlington to steer clear of single-serving bottles of Dasani and Aquafina because their plastic scars the environment, and because tap water is much cheaper.
The debate was nuanced. Fisette said the two sides agree water is preferable to sugar drinks, and that both bottled and tap water are safe. Each acknowledged that gourmet bottled water is basically tap water.
Where they part company is on whether civic-minded consumers must choose. Single-serving bottles have their place, Fisette said – in bulk for emergencies and when traveling where the water is unsafe. But 69 percent are never recycled, and 4 billion pounds of discarded plastic a year harms wildlife, taking 450 years to biograde in landfills. Those containers take 2000 times more energy to produce, he said, and cost consumers 1,000 times as much as tap.
Backed by Arlingtonians for a Clean Environment, Fisette is pushing the pledge to voluntarily swear off single-serving bottles. The goal is 5 percent of Arlingtonians – they have 1,000 so far.
Chris Hogan, the association’s vice president for communications, pooh-poohed the assumption that “environmentalists have all the passion and purpose. I am not a corporate shill,” he said. The association is mostly local small businesses.
“It’s not a bottled water versus tap debate, since both are great for healthy living,” Hogan said. Bottled water competes with carbonated water, and is winning – his member sales are up 4 percent. Convenient PET bottles are 100 percent recyclable. “We work hard to reduce our environmental footprint,” he said.
So what to do? Fisette recalled how a year ago he announced a push against single-serving bottles at the county board New Year’s meeting. (Years earlier, he pressed the county manager to discontinue serving water in plastic bottles at meetings.) While in New York, he decided to buy a reusable bottle and hasn’t bought a single-serve since. Carrying a reusable should become common in purses or backpacks, Fisette said.
It’s voluntary, but hard – think of the sexy marketing by bottled water companies, Fisette added, noting that young people have grown up with single-serving bottles. But there was a time when water fountains were more common. At the new Arlington Mill Community Center, fountains have a slot shaped like a reusable bottle that eases refilling. More fountains could be set up in Arlington parks, he said. And Arlington restaurants will soon encourage customers to bring reusables for free refills.
Fisette would like a deposit fee on plastic bottles to incentivize their return. But Hagan counters that there aren’t clear lines of distribution within states. Better to improve recycling, for which there is demand,” he said. “If bottled water is not available, people will go for soda.”
Which is why Fisette does not oppose bottled water in vending machines. But “industry recycling actually harms long-term sustainability,” he said. “In most places, tap water is available – if you look for it.”