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Banning Bottled Water
Industry executives and analysts debate whether calls for bottled water bans will reach quick-service restaurants.

According to 2005 Mintel research, total U.S. sales of bottled water are predicted to increase 61 percent by 2010. Yet in some cities, the use of bottled water is coming under fire.

In November 2006, Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson asked city department heads to eliminate bottled water to reduce containers in landfills. That same year, the United Church of Canada advised its 590,000 members to stop buying bottled water for economic and environmental reasons. And most recently, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom executed an executive order effective July 1 to ban bottled water in government buildings.

I expect penetration for bottled water to keep rising, even if some younger, eco-friendly people opt out.”

Newsom claims his actions were driven by statistics that say more than a billion plastic water bottles end up in California’s landfills each year, taking 1,000 years to biodegrade and leaking toxic additives such as phthalates into the groundwater.

Kevin Westlye, executive director of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Restaurant Association, approves of his mayor’s decision. The ban, Westlye says, has more to do with taxpayers paying for city employees’ bottled water than the environment. Plus, “we have really good tap water here,” he says.

Of course there is another side to the story. There are people in the bottled water, restaurant, and beverage industries who say there are more effective measures to reduce waste.

Bottled water bans focus on one narrow sector of all the packaged beverages to help the environment and that’s not productive, says Stephan Kaye, vice president of communications for the International Bottled Water Association.

“Our view is it misses an opportunity to practice a comprehensive environmental approach,” Kaye says. “If this is a recycling issue, let’s look at the full recycling stream and waste management stream, not just one relatively small portion of what’s out there.”

Both of the major U.S. beverage companies, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, have a significant stake in the bottled water market and supply bottled water to quick-service clients. PepsiCo’s Aquafina brand is on the menu at Wendy’s and Chick-fil-A, among other concepts. McDonald’s serves Coca-Cola’s Dasani. When asked about the potential impact of the municipal bans on sales, both beverage giants referred inquiries to the American Beverage Association (ABA).

“We believe it reveals a lack of understanding about the bottled water industry,” says Tracey Halliday, ABA spokesperson. “Bottled water products are amongst the most widely recycled products in the nation.”

According to Halliday, the beverage industry is willing to work with cities develop and improve local recycling efforts. As for Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, Mintel senior analyst Billy Hulkower says the $10.98-billion bottled water industry is safe.

“No one is going to ban bottled water [completely] in the next couple years,” Hulkower says. “Light bulbs and plastic bags will go first.

“When it comes to bottled water, it's more tricky—this is big business,” Hulkower continues. “Moreover, what would the line be? Is flavored water okay? What about bottled tea? Or should we be making these drinks at home? Or carrying canteens that need to be washed?”

And what do quick-service brands think of the bans?

“Rather than focusing on one beverage choice, government officials should focus on improving recycling rates for all consumer packaging,” says Keva Silversmith, spokesperson for Burger King, which serves Dasani and additional bottled water brands at its store.

“I can't see the two-thirds of Americans who buy bottled water stopping suddenly,” Hulkower says. “I expect penetration for bottled water to keep rising, even if some younger, eco-friendly people opt out.”

Fred Minnick is a professional writer based in Louisville, Kentucky.