Kick the Bottle

As the containers and costs mount, in South Florida and beyond, plastic is played out

Last year, Americans disposed of 22 billion plastic water bottles, roughly 85 percent of which ended up in landfills — and probably a higher rate in Miami-Dade, where, as Eismann says, "the recycling program is fairly lame."

As a chef who has been ahead of others in terms of eco-consciousness, Michael Schwartz, namesake chef/owner of Michael's Genuine Food and Drink in South Beach, would appear to be a natural proponent of the turn-on-the-tap movement. Philosophically, at least, he is. "I'm willing to eat the profits [on water]. I mean, when you think about it, it's ridiculous. We spend all that energy and money to package the water and fly it from Italy. I'm almost embarrassed by it." Yet while he is ready to dive into the boycott of bottled water, one thing has stopped him from taking the plunge. "We looked at that Natura system and loved everything about it," he says, "except it irradiates the water. What's that all about?"

UV technology is an increasingly popular replacement for chlorine as a primary water disinfectant, believed to be especially effective in eliminating E. coli and coliform bacteria. But irradiation, much like fluoridation, carries controversial connotations. Schwartz doesn't feign to know the specific side effects of zapping tap but maintains that "when they irradiate produce, it kills a lot of the beneficial enzymes." Eismann glows with indignation at the idea. "That's bullcrap," he opines. "I've done a lot of research, and there is absolutely no negative impact from drinking water that's been filtered with UV. All municipal water is purified with UV light."

Miami Mayor Manny Diaz drinks to his health.
Jacqueline Carini
Miami Mayor Manny Diaz drinks to his health.
WASD Assistant Director Ralph Terrero says tap water is just fine.
Jacqueline Carini
WASD Assistant Director Ralph Terrero says tap water is just fine.

Not quite. There are public waterworks around the nation that have instituted irradiation treatments, but Terrero says Miami-Dade has not; Taylor "Bud" Calhoun, water treatment plant manager at the Hollywood facility, says neither has Broward. And although some bottled water, such as Aquafina, goes through UV filtering, bottled-water industry spokesperson Harbin insists Dasani does not.

"Stop the nuking and I'm all in," Schwartz says.

5. The Empire Strikes Back

Bottlemania ain't dead yet. Three out of four Americans drink bottled water, with 20 percent preferring it exclusively over tap.

We consume more plastic-bound H2O per capita than any other nation in the world. Last year, this unbridled swilling translated to more than 70 million bottles per day, at a cost of nearly $11 billion. To funnel it down more: Dasani, with sales of $1.6 billion, was America's best-selling brand, while PepsiCo's Aquafina sopped up $1.47 billion for second spot; these two labels, along with Nestlé's three top sellers, composed 60 percent of the U.S. market. Not bad for the big boys of the beverage world, especially considering how slow on the sip they were: Pepsi didn't roll out Aquafina until 1994, and Coke took an ice age of five additional years to answer with Dasani.

But since the cap has been popped off the industry by consumers, activists, and a limping economy, sales have begun to go flat. In 2007, those 70 million daily bottles, when measured by volume, represented a 6.1 percent increase over the previous year — the lowest rate of growth since 1992. And Coca-Cola cut its outlook for the current quarter, blaming a weak North American economy that has bottlenecked water and soda sales — especially 20-ounce single-serving sizes.

Numbers aside, what has to be most distressing for the industry is that the cachet of bottled water, a product so iconic as to have recently been described by the New York Times as "an iPod for your kidney," is in danger of slipping away. Not surprisingly, the beverage business is strenuously trying to keep protest from growing into a major backlash — and doing so by wielding the same weapon that stimulated the public's thirst in the first place.

Marketing: Now available in vibrant green.

"Sip with a clear conscience," read recent promos for Fiji water, a "truly eco-friendly" drink. Zephyrhills' label boasts of being "a celebration of what's most natural about Florida." PepsiCo really pours it on, touting a partnership with a program "that transformed recycled Aquafina bottles into 100,000 fleece jackets for children." Dasani and Aquafina alone spent $43.4 million in advertising last year.

To be fair, more is being done than just superimposing eco-evocative words on images of glistening mountain streams. The big three nowadays all use lighter-weight containers. Aquafina says its 35 percent slimmer bottle prevents 45 million pounds of plastic from landing in the dump each year.

Coca-Cola's newly greened portfolio includes contributions to some 70 public water projects in 40 countries, construction of the world's largest plastic bottle recycling plant (expected to open next year in Spartanburg, South Carolina), and 142 hybrid delivery trucks, ten of which debuted in South Florida last month (at a cost of $85,000 each). These might be drops in the bucket for the cola conglomerate, but encouraging drops — even if the motivation matches one of Eismann's: a matter of doing so before it has to.

Think Outside the Bottle is trying its best to make them feel as if they have to — and picking up powerful converts along the way. Manny Diaz is one. Though late to the recycling parade, the mayor arrived early and at the forefront of the national movement to do away with city spending on disposable bottles.

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