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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Think Outside the Bottle
distributed 3/19/10 - ©2010

I'm going to do a very unusual thing in this year's angry political context, and say something good about a member of the US Senate. A small act of grace in the Senator's office provided a refreshing affirmation of healthy community life.

A few weeks ago, several of us visited the Denver office of US Senator Mark Udall to talk about climate and energy legislation. We had a generally positive and fruitful conversation about that topic of great importance. My good word for today, though, has to do with a simple thing that happened at the start of meeting.

As we were settling around the conference table, the staff asked if we'd like anything to drink. When we said yes, they brought a pitcher of water, and some compostable plastic cups. We were delighted that they did not bring a tray full of those ubiquitous little bottles of water. It they had, I would have left mine untouched on the table. It was a pleasure, that afternoon, to be able to sip pure, cool tap water while we talked politics.

What happens as a matter of routine in an office setting speaks clearly about worldviews and sensitivities. An important message about values and behaviors is communicated by the choice about how a glass of water is provided. I know that my conversation with the Senator's staff got off to a good start because of the simple way they provided hospitality.

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That pitcher of water comes to mind because of some phone calls I've had this week with the organizer for an advocacy campaign that is taking shape in Colorado. "Think Outside the Bottle" is just one of many campaigns -- local, national and international -- urging people to reject bottled water.

This particular project caught my interest because it goes beyond our individual purchasing decisions. Their initiative brings together three intertwined pieces which lead toward a more institutional approach that is both insightful and effective.

  1. The Think Outside the Bottle campaign names a significant psychological and marketing reality -- that the use of bottled water carries with it an implicit (and often explicit) rejection of tap water. When someone hands you a bottle of water, they believe that it is better than a glass of water -- whether healthier, a more eloquent expression of hospitality, or more convenient. Each of those reasons is flawed, but the sad fact is that the safe, well-regulated water provided essentially free to our homes and offices is seen by many as inferior to the expensive and unregulated stuff in a bottle. In the face of that distorted perspective, we need to actively affirm the goodness and value of what comes out of the faucet. (See a related Notes from five years ago, Bottled Up Anger).

  2. Think Outside the Bottle is calling on governors to stop purchases of bottled water by their state government. Especially in a time when most states are grappling with severe budget problems, it is absurd to spend money on what is already available at the tap. Because the bottled stuff is used so pervasively, those costs can be substantial. A 2007 audit in San Francisco revealed that the city was spending nearly $500,000 to purchase bottled water each year. Than news lead Mayor Newsom to cancel all city spending on that product. The U.S. Conference of Mayors passed a resolution at their 2008 annual meeting encouraging cities across the country to phase out government use of bottled water and promote the importance of strong public water systems. Already, more than 100 cities have responded to this resolution. A year ago, New York Governor Paterson issued an Executive Order cutting state spending on bottled water. "Think Outside the Bottle" is working in several other states to take this message to governors, including Colorado's Governor Ritter.

  3. The campaign is linking political and financial support for public water systems with the "avoid bottled water" message. A safe and reliable supply of tap water requires lots of spending to maintain and develop pipes and treatment plants. In many cities, the water mains are old and deteriorating. Treatment plants are not up to the task of handling new problems like pharmaceutical residue in the source water. Many smaller communities don't have adequate treatment plants -- or any treatment at all. (Two years ago, an outbreak of salmonella in Alamosa, Colorado, sickened almost 400 residents. The illness was traced to contamination of the city's unchlorinated water system.) In a very literal way, when we speak about support for the water systems that serve our communities, we have to "put our money where our mouth is" and provide the funding that will ensure safe drinking water.

Our personal choices to reject bottled water are important. It is also important to address the social messages that demean tap water, and to call for responsible financial decisions by local and state governments -- both in funding of public water systems, and in not wasting money on bottled water.

You can express your support of those "Think Outside the Bottle" stances by signing a form on their website.

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Support for public water supplies over corporate sources is one reason to avoid bottled water. The bottle is another reason.

Last January, the wonderfully sarcastic "newspaper", The Onion, nailed dynamics of the issue with a front-page headline: 'How Bad For The Environment Can Throwing Away One Plastic Bottle Be?' 30 Million People Wonder. The daily actions of millions of individuals, businesses and government offices leads to the generation of massive amounts of plastic, which is rarely even recycled. The all-too-common sight of an empty -- or worse yet, half-empty -- water bottle in the trash or in the gutter can remind us of the inherent waste of this product.

World Water Day is next Monday March 22. Use that occasion to affirm the value of safe and reliable public water supplies, in your community, and around the world. Take a fresh look at your own use of water, and speak out in favor of tap water.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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