1 Days of Water and Roses
The couple peruses the menu from plushly pillowed pods set along the perimeter of a Zen-like reflection pond. After they decide on wok-fried lobster with coconut foam and grilled Florida pompano in curry sauce, the only choice remaining is whether they should pair their dishes with a bottle from Gleneagle Estate (described as "slightly tart" and "fantastic with shellfish") or the Gerolsteiner from Germany ("perfect for bold dishes as well as foods from the grill or rotisserie"). But the selections aren't high-end wines; they're water.
That was 2005, and the introduction of bottled-water menus at high-end establishments such as the Restaurant at the Setai in South Beach seemed a sign that the surge of this marketing miracle would never slacken. Americans quaffed 7.5 billion gallons of bottled water that year, up 10.7 percent from the previous year, and a far cry from the 254 gallons washing down in 1976, when Perrier first thrust the single-serving bottle onto the U.S. market.
Recently, however, a rising resistance has been splattering cold water on the hitherto omnipotent (but still hot) industry. Opponents such as the Sierra Club are spurred by the 4 billion plastic bottles that end up in landfills each year, which also generate more than 2.5 million tons of carbon dioxide and require the energy equivalent of 17 million barrels of oil to make — enough to fill the gas tanks of more than a million cars.
With politicians hopping onto the little green bandwagon as well, the U.S. Conference of Mayors convened two months ago in Miami and adopted Resolution 70, encouraging cities "to phase out, where feasible, government use of bottled water and promote the importance of municipal water." Miami Mayor Manny Diaz, president of the conference, says he cosponsored the measure because he believes that "cities are sending the wrong message about the quality of public water... and are generating unnecessary waste." The national tax-funded cost to rid landfills of the plastic-water-bottle menace is estimated to be about $70 million annually.
A small but simmering national movement to banish bottled water in restaurants has spilled from east (Mario Batali's Del Posto) to west (Alice Waters's Chez Panisse) — and now to South Florida, where establishments such as Pacific Time, Fratelli Lyon, and Jaguar Ceviche Spoon Bar & Latam Grill in Miami and Forte di Asprinio in West Palm Beach serve their own filtered tap H2O. Vic and Angelo's in Palm Beach Gardens imports New York City tap water and serves it for free.
Even the Presbyterians for Restoring Creation and the 1,200-member National Coalition of American Nuns counsel their congregations to abstain from purchasing bottled water on the moral grounds that essential God-given resources should not be privatized.
As if renunciation by nuns isn't bad enough news for the bottled-water barons, a sinking economy is steering the public toward eau de tap too. Jonathan Eismann, chef/owner of Pacific Time, can't fathom why "people are complaining about gas being $4.50 a gallon. Meanwhile, they're paying nine bucks a gallon for water."
In retrospect, the Setai's haute water menu — since discontinued — might well have signaled the moment when water in a bottle jumped the shark.
2. Water Is Water
"Water is water," Garrison Keillor once wrote. "If you want lemon flavoring, add a slice of lemon. You want bubbles, stick a straw in it and blow." This is more or less the message of Think Outside the Bottle (TOTB), a campaign aimed at swaying city officials, businesses, and the public to ban the bottle and turn on the tap.
Deborah Lapidus, 26, is national organizer for Boston-based Corporate Accountability International, the organization leading the TOTB efforts. Nick Denning, CAI's 23-year-old assistant director of environment in Florida, sits across the table from her at a Lincoln Road café. Denning is a local, but Lapidus came to Miami to attend the mayors' conference and press for approval of the water measure. While elated it "passed with flying colors," she knows the next step is "to follow through" and see whether the cities actually enforce it.
Mayor Diaz tells New Times she needn't concern herself with Miami. "Even before the resolution, we had already adopted our own ordinance where we banned the purchase of plastic water containers that are less than two liters — except in the event of an emergency." The bill Diaz signed last November was initiated by City Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, who is working with a newly created Office of Sustainable Initiatives to "explore other measures" such as "researching bottle deposit legislation and various types of container law legislation."
It was two years ago in Austin, Texas, when Lapidus first dipped her toes into the bottled-water morass. "Hardly anyone had heard of bottled water being an issue back then," she recalls. After "a lot of public education" as well as a lot of organizing, some 300 volunteers embarked on a mission to spread the word county by county. Austin has since passed the same type of bottle legislation as Miami, and this grassroots strategy is being employed to similar effect across the nation.