San Francisco May Be First Major City to Ban Plastic Water Bottles

Bottled water could be the next no-no in the environmentally conscious city

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Hans-Peter Merten

San Francisco officials like to talk trash. Specifically, they like to brag about how much of it is diverted from landfills around the Bay Area. The metro is now recycling and composting about 80% of its garbage, more than twice the national rate. With a goal of producing zero net waste by 2020 and a willingness to legislate environmental causes, it’s little surprise that San Francisco could become the first major American city to place strict limits on bottled water.

Under a proposal from city supervisor David Chiu expected to be introduced on Tuesday, San Francisco would ban the sale of plastic water bottles at any events on public land with more than 100 people and prevent the city from spending any public money on bottled water. “The big picture is to radically reduce the amount of plastic bottled water in the city,” says Catherine Rauschuber, a legislative aide to Chiu. “We see it as the direction that everyone has to go.”

The proposal has plenty of loopholes: it would not prevent stores operating on private property from selling bottled water, and races and walkathon events would be exempt. And the punishment for a first offense is not steep: event sponsors could face a fine of up to $500. To placate environmental advocates who want a more complete ban, the measure includes provisions that could reduce sales over time, like requiring all new food trucks to agree not to sell bottled water when they apply for permits to operate on city streets.

The complete board of supervisors is expected to vote on the ban by early February. If approved, San Francisco will follow Concord, Mass., which became the first American city to institute a ban on plastic water bottles at the beginning of 2013. Several college campuses and national parks like the Grand Canyon have also become water-bottle-free. And Toronto put bottled water on the blacklist in 2012, though embattled Mayor Rob Ford has pushed back, saying it’s silly to ban a healthy bottled beverage when sodas and other sugary drinks are still allowed.

The companies that make money from bottled water are none too pleased. The American Beverage Association (ABA), which represents companies like Coca-Cola (which is reporting strong growth in sales of the bottled water Dasani), argue that the proposal is a blow to consumer freedom. “The consumer should have a choice on how they drink their water,” ABA spokeswoman Kate Krebs told the San Francisco Examiner. “[The bottles] are not being thrown away … They are being recycled.” While that’s not true of all bottles in the Bay Area, San Francisco is ahead of the average American city — about 13% of plastics are recycled nationwide.

Environmental advocates emphasize that single-use bottles take centuries to decompose and that their transportation creates pollution. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 32 million tons of plastic waste was generated in 2011, slightly up from 31 million in 2010 — which breaks down to about half a pound per person each day. In the 1960s, plastic accounted for less than 1% of garbage generated in the U.S. and now accounts for 13%, the bulk of that coming from items like shampoo containers and drink bottles.

Rauschuber, Chiu’s aide, is not worried about the fallout from the proposal. San Francisco, after all, was the first major city to ban single-use plastic bags, way back in 2007. “Before 1990, there really was no bottled-water industry,” she says, “and we all managed to stay hydrated.”