Influential Common Ground Fair (ME) bans bottled water sales

By David Carkhuff, Portland Daily Sun

“Our focus is really on eliminating the waste of all of the plastic water bottles,” explained Jim Ahearne, director of the Common Ground Country Fair, about the decision to ban bottled-water sales.

The fair is not just another event. Organized by the state’s largest organics group and heavily identified with mainstream outlets — it’s heavily promoted at Whole Foods, for example — the fair drew nearly 60,000 people last year. This year, it will take place in Unity Sept. 25-27.

It has been strict about vendors, looking not just at finished products but at production systems and trade policies. For example, for more than three decades coffee vendor were banned (see related sidebar) and are being allowed this year.

Last year, the fair was among events adding water bottle filling efforts.

“Last year we put in the water-bottle filling stations and that received a lot of recognition,” Ahearne said. “I understand that this year at the Bonnaroo music festival in Tennessee that has over 90,000 people they put in the bottle-water filling stations.”

Others are also part of the trend to ban bottled water.

The Vermont Brewers Festival in Burlington booted bottled water, and “it cut a lot of our garbage by half,” said Laura Streets, director of the festival, which took place July 17-19.

“We served draft soda to our designated drivers instead of bottled soda, and it was huge,” Streets said.

“It went great, very well received, people loved it, and we’ll definitely do it again,” she said.

The Citizens Bank Lake Champlain Dragon Boat Festival, another Burlington event, coming up Sunday, took a cue from its neighbor.

“We’re trying to go more green, and we’ll have the water trucks, we’ll have no plastic there,” said Linda Dyer, executive director of Dragonheart Vermont, the group organizing the boating festival.

At the Dragon Boat Festival, booths will sell stainless steel water containers and provide recyclable paper cups, she said.

“We’ll lose several thousands of dollars in income, but we’re willing to give that up in order to make that point that it’s important not to use all that plastic,” Dyer said.

While the festival will lose money in bottled-water sales, attendees should welcome the change — and the extra loose change, she said.

“I knew it would be popular because there’s limited water where we are, and everybody loves something that’s free, and to not have to pay $4 for a bottle of water was huge,” Dyer said.

“I think there’s a tremendous awareness about plastic bottles,” Dyer said, describing the momentum to go bottle-free. “At the end of the festival last year, we couldn’t believe the sea of water bottles we had, and it was an eye opener.”

At the Common Ground Country Fair, water-bottle filling stations with special spigots should slacken anyone’s thirst, Ahearne said.  “We installed some of those last year, and those were a huge hit. Bottled-water sales declined.  Our own well here and spring water are expected to be the sources of on-site water.  The trend away from bottled water,” Ahearne said, “could not be ignored.”  “It’s something that’s been growing, but in terms of the trend of what we see fairgoers looking for and the public looking for, people are using their own water containers,” he said.

A battle of beliefs … and bottom lines

Bryan Pullen thought his family-owned Maine business fit perfectly into Maine’s sustainability movement. A stone house at Pullen’s business in small-town Harrison dates back to 1936; his feels his product is natural and sustainable, not to mention healthy; and the family farm even incorporates eagles into its logo because the rural property is historically regarded as a nesting ground for the birds.

Pullen’s business recently was even embraced to the bosom of the oldest and largest state organic organization in the country, the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA). This group counts as its mission the goal to “help farmers and gardeners grow organic food, protect the environment, recycle natural resources, increase local food production, support rural communities, and illuminate for consumers the connection between healthful food and environmentally sound growing practices.”

So Pullen was disillusioned and incredulous this year when he learned that MOFGA had decided to ban all bottled-water sales at its annual Common Ground Country Fair in September — including sales of his product.

“Certainly, we’re frustrated and think it’s just a kneejerk reaction to events taking place without much thought into it at all,” Pullen said Thursday.

Welcome to the bottled Water Wars of 2009.

Groups opposed to bottled water praised the Maine fair for its move.

“The decision to ban bottled water by the Common Ground Fair’s organizers demonstrates that they are really listening to a growing chorus who are concerned about the environmental and health effects of bottled water,” said Jamilla El-Shafei, organizer for Save Our Water, a Maine-based group focused on saving local water supplies.

Emily Posner, representing Defending Water for Life, said she lives on a farm near Unity not far from the Common Ground Fair.

“I think this is very exciting to show that food justice and water justice are something that go hand in hand,” she said.

“I’m ecstatic. This is the direction that we as a community need to be taking to reduce our consumption, which is a primary thing we need to do to combat climate change. I applaud MOFGA for taking this step,” Posner said.

Beyond the issue of dealing with discarded bottles, Posner said the debate expands to concern for the carbon footprint of industries and how human activity might affect the planet’s climate.

“In general, I think there’s a cultural shift and a social shift that’s taking place, as a community and a state we’re trying to assess how we’re going to deal with climate change,” Posner said.

“They’re just reacting to peer pressure,” responded Pullen.

Pullen said, ironically, the move at Common Ground fair could backfire on the local-agriculture movement.

“We have expanded out of the state of Maine,” he said, describing an inability to sell Summit Spring bottled water at Maine-based fairs and festivals. According to an article in “Food Manufacturing” magazine in June, Summit Spring sold around 300,000 gallons of water last year.

Summit Spring took part in the Common Ground fair for several years, Pullen said, but he conceded that another force — raw economics — caused him to drop out in the last couple of years. Vendors were allowed to bring in wholesale bottled water that was cheap, which undercut his sales and made it unaffordable to attend, Pullen said.  “We couldn’t begin to cover our costs,” he said.

And Pullen said Summit Spring is shut out of many public events because large bottled-water companies secure contracts to have exclusive right to sell bottled beverages.

The MOFGA decision, on the other hand, seems to play against Summit Spring’s strength as a bottler with no multi-national connections, he said.

MOFGA’s decision “is going to strain my relationship,” Pullen said.

“It certainly is going to change the way that we promote MOFGA, it has to,” Pullen said.

Prior to this development, on his website, www.summitspring.com, Pullen wrote, “Summit Spring Water is proud to be the first, and only bottled water company to be admitted into membership of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. Although no water may be labeled ‘organic,’ MOFGA recognizes the natural purity of Summit Spring Water and supports our commitment to the sustainable practices we employ to preserve the integrity of our remarkable spring and the land around it.”

“How can we sit here with a straight face and support an organization that bans our product?” Pullen wondered.

As for the larger trend, Pullen said it’s overly broad and ignores differences in the bottled-water industry.

“The baby is getting thrown out with the bathwater. It’s like banning all beer because you don’t like wheat beer,” Pullen said.

Changing currents

The times, they are a-changin’ for bottled-water companies.

Portland has been at the forefront of the tapwater issue, as one of the first three cities to take formal, city government level action on the Take Back The Tap program, a development of the national WaterWatch organization.

The documentary “Tapped,” which premiered in Waterville at the Maine International Film Festival, showcased “health and environmental effects” of plastic bottles.

At the Common Ground fair, staff and volunteers leading the Fair Steering Committee were concerned about the increased use of bottled water at the fair “and its impact on the environment, natural resources and our own waste stream,” according to the fair’s website. Last year the committee decided to work toward eliminating bottled water sales at the fair.

Poland Spring, based in Wilkes Barre, Pa., a subsidiary of the world’s largest food company, Nestle S.A., adopted a conciliatory tone when asked about the ban.

“If the water is being supplied to people in a very convenient way, then that’s the choice of whoever’s holding (the fair),” said Jane Lazgin, spokesperson for Poland Spring, part of Nestle Waters North America.

“Typically, public water supplies are not available when people are out and about, and that’s why when bottled water isn’t available, people will drink sugared drinks. Given the rates of obesity and diabetes, we’d rather see people choosing bottled water,” Lazgin said.

“Tap water is generally very safe, it’s the delivery of it, I just hope that in dispensing it they will do it in a way that’s very sanitary, I’m sure they would,” she said.

When it comes to empty water bottles landing in the trash, Lazgin said Poland Spring is trying to do more to encourage recycling.

“We’re working on better recycling access with state governments,” she said.

“It’s a matter of doing, not just saying,” Lazgin said.

“In context, bottled water, and our bottled water … has the lightest environmental footprint — and we would stand behind that 100 percent — of any packaged beverage,” she said.

A firm recently mapped the company’s carbon footprint and recommended lightening the package, Lazgin said.

“We have the lightest if not one of the lightest bottles out there. We do our best to maximize our shipping so that’s very efficient. And our latest plant built in Kingfield is built to LEED standards,” she said, referring to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.

“We agree, we need to be responsible for our own environmental footprint and do everything we can to lighten it,” Lazgin said.

Pullen said Summit Spring taps only the overflow of a natural spring and also encourages recycling.

“We need to get all of this plastic out of the waste stream,” he agreed, but added that Summit Spring bottles don’t need to end up in the trash.

“If the bottles are properly redeemed and turned into other useful products, what exactly is the problem?” he asked.

“To sit there and ban it at the fair, if they think they’re making themselves feel good about things, that’s fine, but I think they’re missing the point. They’re just reacting to the current firestorm,” Pullen said.

Asked about feedback to the bottled-water ban, Ahearne said, “Most of it has been extremely positive.”