Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Bottled Water Opponents Urge Change in State Purchasing Policy

by Janine Gates

Late last month, activists organized by the Think Outside the Bottle campaign delivered about 130 handwritten letters addressed to Governor Gregoire urging her to stop state purchasing of bottled water. The group also met with the Governor’s executive policy advisor on sustainability.

The campaign is also raising awareness of water privatization efforts in Washington State by the Nestle company, which is working towards creating a bottled water plant in Black Diamond, Washington. Last year, Enumclaw and Orting citizens successfully stopped Nestle from building plants there, which would have sucked 100 million gallons of spring water per year from their local aquifers, before reaching municipal supplies.

Carolyn Auwaerter, Washington organizer for the Think Outside the Bottle campaign, gathered the small, but dedicated group on March 25 on the Capitol Building steps in Olympia.

“We are gathered here today because water is a basic human right. When it is treated as a commodity, our democracy, health, and environment suffers….Governor Gregoire can save money by eliminating bottled water from the budget. We would also like her to deliver the message to President Obama and Congress that our public water systems must be properly funded.”

Washington’s portion of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (stimulus) money is $38 million for clean water drinking projects. With the President’s budget proposal for next year allocating $3.9 billion for similar drinking water and sewer projects, the activists urged Gregoire to ensure that public water systems get the resources they need.

The Think Outside the Bottle campaign is working to educate individuals, cities, schools and restaurants to pledge support for tap water over bottled water.

Olympian Chuck Schultz participated with the action at the state capitol. “I never could see paying for bottled water. I quit accepting bottled water when offered to me a year ago when I learned what it was doing to the environment.” Schultz said he recently attended a course at Group Health and was disappointed to be served bottled water.

Miriam Calkins, a senior in the Environmental Health program at The Evergreen State College, and Davin Mackey, a sophomore in the same program, also participated.

Above: Miriam Calkins shows off her letter before delivering it to the Governor's Office.

“I did some research regarding the recycling rate of plastic bottles,” said Mackey. “According to Environmental Protection Agency estimates, the recycling rate for plastic bottles is only 28%, so the material represents a serious burden to our landfills. It’s a resource management issue for me. The bacterial counts in bottled water are also consistently higher than Environmental Protection Agency standards,” Mackey continued.

The governor was unavailable to meet with the group, so they met in a conference room with Kathleen Drew, the Governor’s executive policy advisor on sustainability issues. There is no state policy on bottled water and Drew admitted that there is great room for improvement, even on the Capitol Campus.

Drew’s office in the Insurance Building has no kitchen or tap water access other than the restrooms. “Even the water fountains in the Legislative Building are nothing but a trickle and most of them (and restroom sinks) cannot accommodate reusable water bottles,” Drew said, leading the conversation to possible institutional changes.

The Governor's Interagency Sustainability Committee is made up of at least 40 state agencies. Karin Kraft, with the Washington State Department of Ecology, is coordinator of the group, which meets quarterly.

In an interview today, Kraft says she met with General Administration (GA) staff about six months ago to discuss the bottled water issue because GA was about to write a contract regarding state purchasing. "We have concerns...there's a lot of purchasing of bottled water that occurs, however, we are discouraging that, for various reasons," Kraft says.

A member of the Think Outside the Bottle campaign will be meeting with the Governor's Interagency Sustainability Committee on May 20 at the Washington State Department of Health. "We feel successful with the work we've done so far," says Kraft.

Several cities around Washington have nearly stopped bottled water purchases, including the City of Olympia.

"Olympia doesn't have an outright ban on purchases, since bottled water is needed for emergency management personnel and maintenance workers for the parks, but we don’t purchase bottled water for meetings, parties and employee recognition events. We provided aluminum canisters last year to employees to encourage them to fill from the tap,” says city council executive secretary Mary Nolan. Nolan added that city council members are provided with pitchers of water during council meetings.

There are lots of reasons to not buy bottled water. Up to 40% of bottled water is actually just tap water. Corporations, through slick marketing, have steadily undermined people’s confidence in public water when bottled water is in fact not tested for safety as much as tap water. The process of manufacturing, distributing and disposing of bottled water is very energy inefficient, and the bottles themselves are made with chemicals linked to hormonal and reproductive damage. For this reason, plastic bottles should not be reused.

Nestle, the largest manufacturer of bottled water in the world, is having a
shareholders meeting in late April, and Think Outside the Bottle organizers are gearing up for it. Nestle owns 12 U.S. bottled water brands, including Arrowhead, which is sold on the West Coast. According to Nestle’s website, Europe and North America account for 50% of bottled water consumption. Nestle operates 38 bottling plants worldwide, 26 of them in North America. Nestle intends to build one in the Northwest by 2010, and is also looking at sites in Oregon.

Several communities around the country are battling Nestle, some successfully. If you would like to get involved, contact Carolyn Auwaerter at (206) 568-2851, or go to Or contact or for more information.

Above: Janine Gates brings Governor Gregoire a Mason jar of what most Olympians think is the best water in the world - pure, fresh, cold artesian well water from downtown Olympia. Photo by Carolyn Auwaerter