The Water Debate Continues: Bottled vs. Tap Last year, Americans bought more than 4 billion gallons of water in individual-portion bottles. Salt Lake City mayor Rocky Anderson explains why some city leaders are encouraging their citizens to start turning to the tap.

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LYNN NEARY, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington. Neal Conan is away.

These days, it seems like a cold bottle of water is never too far away. Whether you're riding the train, running on the treadmill, or in a business meeting, either you or someone next to you is carrying one. But why pay up to $2 for something you can get for free? That's the question many leaders across the country are asking. And cities from New York to San Francisco are touting their clean water and urging their citizens to go tap. One such city leader will be joining us shortly.

And a little later, the grammar vandal strikes again. Also, growing up with Harry Potter.

But first, are you ready to give up your bottle? What would it take for you to do so? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. And our e-mail address is talk@npr.org - that would be org. And you can comment on our blog at npr.org, just go to /blogofthenation.

Our first guest is Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson, who joins us from member station KCPW in Salt Lake. Mayor Anderson, good to have you with us.

Mayor ROCKY ANDERSON (Democrat, Salt Lake City): It's great to be with you, Lynn.

NEARY: Now, you've been quoted as saying bottled water is the greatest marketing scam of all time. Why?

Mayor ANDERSON: Well, because they've created a completely false demand for a product that until this marketing campaign, we all would get our water from the tap - from fountains. So it wasn't that long ago that we'd watch people buy water and think what a bunch of elite snobs. Why would they do that? How incredibly wasteful?

And so I think that somehow, we have reached almost the most absurd possible level of marketing in this country and the gullibility by the consumers by falling for this. It's - drinking water is available to everybody. In most municipalities, it's tasty. Salt Lake City, by the way, we've just rated the first - the best tasting tap water among those who - these wine tasters judge.

But, you know, I go back to New York City. It's great tap water. I was at a climate change conference in New York City. And instead of providing us their delicious tap water, they were providing us with bottles of water that were shipped from Norway. Now, imagine the emissions by sending water thousands of miles - and those were glass bottles, not plastic bottles. Imagine the emissions in manufacturing these bottles, then shipping them to warehouse, then shipping them to the point of consumption - unbelievable, when you could just walk over the tap and pour yourself a glass of water.

NEARY: Well, the Earth seems to be shifting on this issue. It seems to me in the last - even a couple of weeks, really, we've been hearing more and more critics of people are using bottled water. Why - what are the problems with it? Let's lay out what you think some of the problems are. Let's talk about specific to your own city.

Mayor ANDERSON: All right. Well, both in environmentally and economically. Environmentally, first of all, nine out of ten bottles end up at the landfill. They're not recycled. There are some 30 million discarded bottles per day in the United States. That equates to 20 billion a year.

Now, if you take a look at what happens before we get the water, we use - in the United States, for bottled water purchased in the United States - about a million and a half barrels of oil just to create the plastic bottles. That's enough to provide electricity for 250,000 homes; that creates greater dependence on foreign oil, of course. But then, the emissions in shipping the water - I mean, really, do we need in the United States to be drinking water shipped from Fiji or from Norway when we can just walk over the tap and get water that taste just as good if not better? Forty percent…

NEARY: Well, what…

Mayor ANDERSON: …I was just going to say 40 percent of bottled water is actually sourced from municipal tap water sources. So that shows what absolute suckers we are as consumers and how we get convinced to spend money completely unnecessarily. It's an economically disastrous way to spend money on water when you could just walk over the tap.

NEARY: What's your city doing to try encourage people to drink tap water instead of buying bottled water?

Mayor ANDERSON: Well, for one thing, I think government needs to set an example. I sent a letter out to all of our department heads - no bottled water is to be purchased with tax money in Salt Lake City government. Now, our city council hasn't figured that out, yet. They all sit there in council meetings and drink bottled water. Most of them do.

But there is a lot of publicity around this, of course. And our firefighters, our police - we got them all Nalgene bottles. We sent out large jugs of water at events, large events. Instead of having people sell water, we put out free water in these ice coolers, and people love it. It's cold. It's refreshing. It tastes good. And they're not spending ridiculous amounts of money, and we don't have all those wastes afterwards.

NEARY: What do you have it in? In recycled bottles? Or, is that what your…

Mayor ANDERSON: We have - the coolers that are there, the large coolers are five gallon or larger coolers, and then we either have recyclable cups with recycle bin nearby, or we encourage people to carry Nalgenes bottles around with them. If you're carrying a Nalgene - if you're buying plastic bottles, you can certainly carry a Nalgene bottle. I've got one right in front of me.

NEARY: What's a Nalgene bottle? Just so…

Mayor ANDERSON: It's a plastic bottle, but it's one that doesn't put off some of the toxins that some of these disposable bottles do. That's another problem, by the way. Disposable plastic water bottles can contain antimony, which is a potentially toxic trace element with chemical properties similar to arsenic. In manufacturing these bottles, they put off toxic pollution.

So all around, it is an economic and environmental disastrous practice that we engage in in this country. It's probably worse per capita than any others, but you see a lot of these problems elsewhere now. But there is a personal ethic being build around this. I think people more and more are getting it. The radio station where I am right now - they're getting Nalgene bottles for all their employees. They're not buying bottled water anymore. And that wasn't the case just a month or so ago.

NEARY: Let's see if we can get a call in here. We're talking to Rocky Anderson, mayor of Salt Lake City. We're talking - who is encouraging people to begin using tap water. And that's the topic of our show today - bottled versus tap water. If you'd like to join the discussion, the number is 800-989-8255. What will it take you to give up your bottled water?

Let's talk a call first from Norm(ph) and he's calling from Cleveland, Ohio. Hi, Norm.

NORM (Caller): Well, what would it take for me to give up my bottled water is to move back to New York. I'm a New Yorker in exile. And every New Yorker in exile knows that you reasonably can't get decent pizza outside of New York. It's because of the pizza. It's because of the water. And I know that New York water was considered in the past and probably still is among the 10 best waters in the world. The thing is there are other places where it comes from wells, where it comes from rivers, and it tastes lousy. I'm a musician. I work in bars. And the water, you know, that comes from the bars - from the bar spigots, very often does not taste good. And so I get - and so I have to use the - I have to use the bottled water.

Mayor ANDERSON: Can I suggest one thing, Norm, there are filtering systems…

NORM: What?

Mayor ANDERSON: There are filtering systems that make a huge difference in places where perhaps you have too much of certain kinds of chemicals in the water - chlorine, for instance. And I think that makes a difference. And economically, you're way ahead if you use a filter system with your tap water than buying bottled water.

NORM: Well, you're probably right, but there - most, you know, most places that I'm at don't have it. There are a number that do, and then I do drink the tap water. Cleveland tap water is actually pretty good. It's just that having to, you know, just chilling it. And when I'm outside the city and in the countryside here, it's just not so good. This is a great show and I'm loving listening to it.

NEARY: All right, thanks for calling, Norm. All right, we're going to bring in another guest now. Joining us from our member station WHYY in Philadelphia is New York Times reporter Bill Marsh, and he's written about the battle between the tap and the bottle for the Times. Bill, good to have you with us.

Mr. BILL MARSH (Correspondent, New York Times): Good afternoon.

NEARY: So there seems to be a kind of tap water movement boiling up around the country. Where did this get started? It seems I - in the last few weeks, I've seen a lot of things about this.

Mr. MARSH: There have. There've been a few high-profile, high-end restaurants around the country - mostly in California and in New York City - that have gotten religion on this matter; and a handful of mayors - including Mr. Anderson - in Minneapolis and San Francisco; and New York City officials, who a couple of months ago started a campaign to convince New Yorkers that they'd be better off drinking tap for all kinds of reasons.

And the trends at the moment - the larger national trends - are definitely against this. The bottled water - rise of bottled water - is really the story of the beverage industry of the last decade. But just, you know, in the last couple of months, it has gotten a lot of attention and it's definitely a topic that's in the air.

NEARY: Yeah. Rocky Anderson, are other mayors - are mayors talking to each other about this? Is that part of what's going on here?

Mayor ANDERSON: Yes. In fact, at the most recent U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting in Los Angeles about two months ago, there were several of us who joined in a resolution calling for some detailed study on this. And I think that by that kind of a resolution passing, it sends a very clear message that mayors are getting this, that we realize that we should not be using taxpayer's money.

I mean, U.S. consumers spend more than $11 billion dollars on bottled water. And when you think of, for the same quantity, of water that you're buying, it's more expensive than gasoline at today's high prices. You see how absolutely ridiculous it is when you could just walk over the tap, and there are more controls, more quality controls on municipal water in all of our cities than there is in the tap water. And I know that the water folks - bottled water folks - they even have their association now say that the water's actually competing with other drinks that may be less healthy. Well, I say, great. Go over into your local fountain, your tap, and pour out the water.

We don't need to buy these bottles. And we certainly don't need to add to global warming by all of these greenhouse gas emissions that are associated with shipping waters thousands of miles.

NEARY: Mayor Anderson, thanks so much for joining us today.

Mayor ANDERSON: Thanks, Lynn.

NEARY: That was Mayor Rocky Anderson and he joined us from our member studios KCPW in Salt Lake City. When we come back, we're going to continue our discussion with New York Times reporter Bill Marsh. Give us a call. The number is 800-989-8255. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.

(Soundbite of music)

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington, filling in for Neal Conan.

We're told we should drink eight glasses of water a day. If you fill that glass from a tap in New York City, it'll cost about 49 cents a year. To get to that same amount of bottled water, it will run some fourteen hundred dollars every year. You pay for safety and convenience, but as we just heard from the mayor of Salt Lake City, some cities want to wean us off the bottle and are taking -talking up the advantages of the tap.

Our guest is Bill Marsh. He wrote the article "A Battle Between the Bottle and the Faucet" for the New York Times. And we're taking your calls. What would it take to get you to give up bottled water? The number is 800-989-TALK. The e-mail address, talk@npr.org. And send us your comments on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Bill Marsh, I was just thinking as I was reading those words, we're told we should drink eight glasses of water a day that I have the impression - and I might be wrong - but I have the impression that, you know, it was almost sort of a health issue that got us started on this water kick, that we were told to drink more water. And that - maybe that led us somewhat to this habit that Americans now have of carrying a bottle of water with them everywhere. Am I right about that?

Mr. MARSH: Well, that's right. I mean, people are probably more active than they were in decades past, and we want to be hydrated wherever we go. It's not always easy to have access to tap water. And then, health officials and health advocates have noted a huge rising in soft drink consumption - not by just children, but by adults since the '70s and '80s - and they're, by far, the most consumed drinks. And a lot of people connect that with the obesity - high obesity rates that we have in the country now. And so there was an effort to convince people that they ought to put down an occasional soft drink and drink water instead.

NEARY: Right. And I think there was, sort of, a feeling of I'm doing the right thing when I go to the soda - you know, the vending machine, and instead of getting a soda, you get a bottle of Dasani, which we now find out is just purified tap water, I understand.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: Is that right?

Mr. MARSH: Right. I'm not familiar with that particular brand, but that's not uncommon. You know, some of the bottled water companies make a big case for their water based on where it comes from, but a lot of it is just filtered tap water.

NEARY: And how good is tap water around the country? We know - we've just had a call from a New Yorker who said I miss my tap water in New York and there's a number of other cities that we know have pretty good quality. But is that the norm or is it uneven?

Mr. MARSH: Well, it's, by and large, quite good. I mean, New York City has extraordinary water. And it's a system that really is the envy of cities everywhere. But, by and large, you know, nobody's making the case in the bottled water industry that tap is unsafe or dangerous to drink. It's all monitored very carefully by the EPA. And occasionally, there are problems with municipal water systems. There are also occasional problems with bottled water.

But by and large, the water here is safe to drink. And it's mostly a question of taste for a lot of people, as one of your callers said, you know. New York City water tastes great. And if you grew up on that, you probably really don't like the taste of some other places that might have more mineral content or other things that affect the taste.

NEARY: We're talking with Bill Marsh about the great bottle versus tap water debate. The number to call is 800-989-8255. And we're going to Pat now, who's calling from Littleton, Colorado. Hi, Pat.

PAT (Caller): Hi. Can you hear me?

NEARY: I can. Go ahead.

PAT: Okay. I'd want to come to - I agree with everything that everyone says, but I wanted to come to the defense of neighborhoods who actually do have bad waters. We live in a suburb south of Denver. And there's a difference between Denver water and even, you know, the difference of 10 miles because of where the water comes and how they treat it. When we first moved into this house, the water smelled so bad, coming out of the tap, that we had them install a whole house filter, subsequently, that we bought one of those small ones that goes on the tap itself. I can drink this water for as long as this filter works, to the point were you start to taste it or smell how bad the water is. You can drive four miles north to a neighborhood that uses Denver-areas water and it's a completely different water. So we actually do drink bottled water purely for the fact that some of the tap water out here is so bad, it smell bad.

NEARY: Bill Marsh?

Mr. MARSH: Well, yeah. Unfortunately, that's maybe something that people have to consider when they're either developing areas or, certainly, when they're moving out there. I mean, people don't always have the choice. But there is certainly is unevenness. And, of course, big municipal systems have long experience in filtering their water and making it pure for customers. Well water in different places - it's subject to different geological conditions, different pollution problems - can be very uneven. But, by and large, across the country, it is safe to drink tap water.

NEARY: So, Pat, do you drink bottled water?

PAT: We drink bottled water. And to be perfectly honest, we buy the cheapest bottled water we can find. Because even the cheapest bottled water at the grocery store or at like at Sears or some place like that, where they sell the bottled water, tastes better than the tap water you get out of the tap. And the interesting thing to me is that every quarter, they send out - or every year, they send out an assessment of where the water fits. And if it meets all the minimum criteria - and it meets all the minimum criteria with the exception of - it's just terrible to drink.

NEARY: Yeah. Well, let me ask you one other thing, because this is going to get us to the next part of this discussion. And that is do you recycle the bottles?

PAT: Yes, we do. There is a recycling - in our neighborhood itself, there is a big recycling now. I'll have to claim that we can't recycle all of them because a lot of them end up in the car with my kids. But as a rule, I'll bet about a good 75 percent of those bottles are recycled.

NEARY: All right. Thanks for calling, Pat.

PAT: Thank you.

NEARY: Bill Marsh, that's something I wanted to ask about, and that's the question of recycling. And, you know, that has to be part of this discussion because as we've already heard, Mayor Anderson mentioned - I forget the number exactly - but huge number of these bottles end up in landfills. And, you know, part of what cities have to do is not just say drink our tap water, but come up with pretty good recycling programs, don't they?

Mr. MARSH: Well, you know, we'd like them to, and everyone - the bottled water industry, the beverage industry and advocates of recycling - would like to see that happen. But providing tap water and providing garbage disposal are vital municipal functions. Recycling doesn't have to be done. And to leave it to municipalities, you know, some of them are strapped for cash and it's a lot of extra labor and a whole lot of work. It's training citizens to separate their garbage and their recyclables, and not everyone does it. I've read that there are about ninety-three hundred municipal recycling programs in the United States, but that's a tiny fraction of the total number of municipalities. So there are many, many people who just don't have the opportunity to recycle in that way.

NEARY: Well, some states have bottle bills, and they provide a cash incentive for recycling, don't they?

Mr. MARSH: That's right. Although the cash incentive in, I think, almost every case - with the possible exception of California - is not indexed to inflation. And a lot of these programs…

NEARY: How do they work exactly? Maybe you can explain how.

Mr. MARSH: Right. So when you buy a can of soda, let's say, in New York City, five cents of that price actually belongs to you and you're putting it down with the retailer as a deposit. And since, theoretically, you know that they have five cents of your money and it's invested in that can, you have an incentive to return that can and retrieve your five cents. Most of the 11 states that have bottle laws have five-cent deposits. Michigan, which is where I grew up, has a 10-cent deposit. And although that's the most generous of the 11 states, it's still a pittance. And since it was - begun in the mid-70s - I mean, 10 cents was 10 cents in the '70s - three decades of inflation have eroded the value of that dime to three cents today. Or to put it another way, if the 10-cent deposit that people in Michigan pay for each beverage can they buy or actually borrow - the deposit today should have risen to about 37 cents.

NEARY: Hardly makes it worth the trip to the grocery store, huh, to go back and return the bottles? Is that what you're saying?

Mr. MARSH: Well, people there do find it's worthwhile. And because it has the most generous or the heftiest deposit, it also has the highest recycling rate of the types of beverage containers that can be - that are eligible for the deposit. Ninety-seven percent of them are recycled, so people do, you know, over the decades, people have got into the habit of doing that. And the grocers have elaborate machines and mechanisms set up to sort all these stuff out and to give people their deposits back. And they don't all like it, but it's a system that everyone has gotten acclimated to. And in those states, it's much harder to find cans and bottles on highway sides, and littering other, you know, urban and rural spaces. People take care of them.

NEARY: All right. Let's take a call now from Ron(ph). Ron is calling from Arkansas. Hi, Ron.

RON (Caller): Yes, I'm here.

NEARY: Go ahead.

RON: Okay. I'm sorry for the noise. I'm on the highway. My wife has an immunosuppressant disease problem. She takes Methotrexate and other immune-suppression drugs. She's been told by her doctor that she must not drink any water that comes from a surface lake because it contains organisms that cannot be removed even by reverse osmosis. We drink bottled water brought in by truck. And we do recycle those big five-gallon jugs. But the smaller ones - we have to buy whenever we can and sometimes we don't get to recycle them.

NEARY: Yeah.

RON: Thank you very much.

NEARY: All right. Thanks for calling, Ron.

So there's an interesting perspective, which in that case, you're talking about somebody whose health could be endangered because they don't know exactly where the water's coming from.

Mr. MARSH: Right. Well, I wanted to ask him actually if he knew - how much he knew about his bottled water supplier.

NEARY: Or whether the bottled water supplier is providing safe water, you're saying.

Mr. MARSH: Right. Right. I mean, presumably, you know, for that particular caller, it's obviously a huge health issue so - and presumably, they've done that. But, you know, most people don't know much more about the bottled water they're drinking than the tap water they're drinking. And the regulations are a little bit different. Municipal water is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency. And it's required to be tested three times daily. And all those test results are public.

The FDA - Food and Drug Administration - regulates tap water, and it's tested on a less frequent basis. And those results - those reports are not necessarily made public. So, you know, customers have to do a little bit of investigating. And with all products, there's a certain amount of faith you have to have in your provider.

NEARY: Now, there's a certain irony there because I think people are turning to bottled water because they do think it's cleaner.

Mr. MARSH: That's right. And some of that is a function, as Mr. Anderson said, of advertising. A lot of the bottled water companies emphasize purity and images that suggests that bad tasting tap, in people's minds, just seems impure…

NEARY: Yeah.

Mr. MARSH: …even though it might be harmless minerals.

NEARY: Well, I want to just remind our listeners that you are listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And I'd like to bring another guest in now. Joining us from his office in Alexandria, Virginia, is Joseph Doss, the president and CEO of the International Bottled Water Association. Welcome to the program, Mr. Doss.

Mr. JOSEPH DOSS (President and CEO, International Bottled Water Association): Well, thank you very much. Good to be here.

NEARY: And let me present this question to you that we've just started discussing. And that is how safe is bottled water? How does a consumer know for sure that the bottle of water that he or she is buying really is safe?

Mr. DOSS: Bottled water is comprehensively regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. There are standards of quality, standards of identity, good manufacturing practices, requirements for how the room or its bottle must be clean and sanitary. There're just, you know, numerous regulations that ensure the safety and quality of bottled water. And by law, bottled water regulations must be as protective of the public health as the tap water regulations.

So that's right in the Food and Drug Administration - the food and drug laws of the United States require that it be as protective of the public health. So consumers - and I think it's unfortunate - let me just say that I think it's unfortunate we're getting into a tap water versus bottled water debate, because we in the bottled water industry don't see it that way. Bottled water is a safe, healthy, refreshing beverage that consumers are using to stay hydrated. And any efforts to discourage that I think are not in the public interest.

Consumers are not uniformly replacing tap water with bottled water. There are many other beverages that they're choosing from, whether it's juices or soft drinks or teas. And some may choose to drink both depending on the circumstances.

NEARY: Well, is the industry beginning to feel the impact of what seems to be something of a movement growing to - at least in some cities - to limit the amount of bottled water the people are drinking or to encourage people to use tap water or to refill the bottles they have with tap water?

Mr. DOSS: Well, that's obviously been going on in a couple of cities. However, I would say again that any efforts that are going to discourage consumers from drinking water - bottled water, tap water - are not in the public interest. These are - bottled water's a healthy product. People take - drink bottled water because of, sometimes, what it doesn't have in it and because they want to moderate or eliminate…

NEARY: What about the issue of the - that a lot of people are talking about, and that's the fact that there are so many plastic bottles not being recycled ending up in landfills, they're never going to go away. Does your industry have some kind of responsibility to help deal with that problem, maybe help municipalities come up with a recycling program?

Mr. DOSS: Absolutely. And let me just say, the members of the International Bottled Water Association are committed to working with legislators, regulators, civic leaders, and others, to promote comprehensive environmental conservation and waste management policies in the United States. But let me just also say that the plastic - small plastic water bottles that contain bottled water are such a very small part of the waste stream.

They account for less than one-third of one percent of all the waste produced in the United States. So it's critically important that any efforts to reduce the environmental impact of packaging has to - they have to focus on all consumer goods and not just target bottled water.

NEARY: All right. Thanks so much for joining us today, Mr. Doss.

Mr. DOSS: Thank you.

NEARY: Joseph Doss is the president and CEO of the International Bottled Water Association. He joined us from his office in Alexandria, Virginia.

And Bill Marsh, just to conclude, is this the beginning of a movement, do you think? I mean, what - do you really see Americans giving up their bottled water? It's really become something that people - it is such a convenience and the people are so used to doing. What would it take, do you think, for people to do that?

Mr. MARSH: Well, that's a good question. A lot of habits that seemed unbreakable have definitely been broken in our society. Recently, smoking, you know, is routine in the office place and that's not - the workplace - that's not allowed anymore. Soft drinks, which just seemed to be making a ceaseless climb in terms of how much people were consuming have been in decline for most of the last decade, and that's being replaced by tap water. So anything's possible. And New York City is starting off with this modest ad campaign to convince people otherwise.

NEARY: All right. And it's possible to change, you're saying.

Mr. MARSH: Indeed.

NEARY: Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. MARSH: Thank you very much.

NEARY: Bill March(ph) is a - Marsh is a reporter for the New York Times.

Coming up, think you're a grammar wonk? You've got nothing on the self-proclaimed grammar vandal.

I'm Lynn Neary. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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