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H2-WHOA! Australian town bans bottled water sales


[Local article re-published in the New York Times follows below]

SYDNEY (AP) — Residents of a rural Australian town hoping to protect the earth and their wallets have voted to ban the sale of bottled water, the first community in the country — and possibly the world — to take such a drastic step in the growing backlash against the industry.
Residents of Bundanoon cheered after their near-unanimous approval of the measure at a town meeting Wednesday. It was the second blow to Australia’s beverage industry in one day: Hours earlier, the New South Wales state premier banned all state departments and agencies from buying bottled water, calling it a waste of money and natural resources.

“I have never seen 350 Australians in the same room all agreeing to something,” said Jon Dee, who helped spearhead the “Bundy on Tap” campaign in Bundanoon, a town of 2,500 about 100 miles (160 kilometers) south of Sydney. “It’s time for people to realize they’re being conned by the bottled water industry.”

First popularized in the 1980s as a convenient, healthy alternative to sugary drinks, bottled water today is often criticized as an environmental menace, with bottles cluttering landfills and requiring large amounts of energy to produce and transport.

Over the past few years, at least 60 cities in the United States and a handful of others in Canada and the United Kingdom have agreed to stop spending taxpayer dollars on bottled water, which is often consumed during city meetings, said Deborah Lapidus, organizer of Corporate Accountability International’s “Think Outside the Bottle” campaign in the U.S.

But the Boston-based nonprofit corporate watchdog has never heard of a community banning the sale of bottled water, she said.

“I think what this town is doing is taking it one step further and recognizing that there’s safe drinking water coming out of our taps,” she said.

Bundanoon’s battle against the bottle has been brewing for years, ever since a Sydney-based beverage company announced plans to build a water extraction plant in the town. Residents were furious over the prospect of an outsider taking their water, trucking it up to Sydney for processing and then selling it back to them. The town is still fighting the company’s proposal in court.

Then in March, Huw Kingston, who owns the town’s combination cafe and bike shop, had a thought: If the town was so against hosting a water bottling company, why not ban the end product?

To prevent lost profit in the 10-or-so town businesses that sell bottled water, Kingston suggested they instead sell reusable bottles for about the same price. Residents will be able to fill the bottles for free at public water fountains, or pay a small fee to fill them with filtered water kept in the stores.

The measure will not impose penalties on those who don’t comply when it goes into effect in September. Still, all the business owners voluntarily agreed to follow it, recognizing the financial and environmental drawbacks of bottled water, Kingston said.

On Wednesday, 356 people turned up for a vote — the biggest turnout ever at a town meeting.

Only two people voted no. One said he was worried banning bottled water would encourage people to drink sugary drinks. The other was Geoff Parker, director of the Australasian Bottled Water Institute — which represents the bottled water industry.

Australians spent 500 million Australian dollars ($390 million) on bottled water in 2008 — a hefty sum for a country of just under 22 million people.

On Thursday, Parker blasted the ban as unfair, misguided and ineffective.

He said the bottled water industry is a leader in researching ways to minimize bottled beverage impact on the environment. Plus, he said, the ban removes consumer choice.

“To take away someone’s right to choose possibly the healthiest option in a shop fridge or a vending machine we think doesn’t embrace common sense,” he said.

But tap water is just as good as the stuff you find encased in plastic, said campaign organizer Dee, who also serves as director of the Australian environment group Do Something!

“We’re hoping it will act as a catalyst to people’s memories to remember the days when we did not have bottled water,” he said. “What is ‘Evian’ spelled backwards? ‘Naive.'”


The New York Times
July 16, 2009
Bundanoon Journal
Small Australian Town Stands Up for the Tap

BUNDANOON, Australia – When the residents here voted this month to stop selling bottled water in town, they never expected to be thrust into the global spotlight.

With a nearly unanimous show of hands at a community meeting, the people in this small tourist town touched off a worldwide debate about the social and environmental effects of bottled water that has
put the beverage industry on the defensive.

State and local officials across the United States have been phasing out the use of bottled water at government workplaces in recent years, citing a variety of concerns, including the energy used to
make and transport the bottles and an erosion of public trust in municipal water supplies. But as far as campaigners are aware, Bundanoon is the first town in the world to stop all sales of bottled water.

Set in the cool highlands southwest of Sydney, Bundanoon is a sleepy town of tidy gardens and quaint cottages surrounded by the weekend estates of wealthy urbanites. It is the sort of place where strangers
strike up conversations on park benches along the picturesque main street and townsfolk leave fresh flowers on the local war memorial.

According to Huw Kingston, the owner of Ye Olde Bicycle Shoppe and a leader of the “Bundy on Tap” campaign, the ban did not begin as an environmental crusade. It started when a bottling company sought
permission to extract millions of liters of water from the local aquifer.

At first, residents were upset at the prospect of tanker trucks rumbling through their quiet streets. But as opposition grew, Mr. Kingston said many residents began to question the idea of trucking water about 100 miles north to a bottling plant in Sydney, only to transport it somewhere else – possibly even back to Bundanoon – for sale.

“We became aware, as a community, of what the bottled-water industry was all about,” Mr. Kingston said. “So the idea was floated that if we don’t want an extraction plant in our town, maybe we shouldn’t be selling the end product at all.”

A dozen or so activists got together and called a community meeting. Of the 356 residents who turned out to vote on the ban by a show of hands, only one objected.

The ban is entirely voluntary. But with the support of the public, the town’s six food retailers have agreed to pull bottled water from their shelves starting in September. They plan to recoup their losses by selling inexpensive, reusable bottles that can be filled at drinking fountains and filtered water dispensers to be placed around town.

Some of the town’s 2,500 residents say they support the plan because they worry about the effects of chemicals in plastic bottles; some view it as a positive demonstration against the water plant.

Others, however, are skeptical that the local council could afford to maintain the new drinking fountains, while still others worry about the health implications of leaving only sweetened alternatives on refrigerator shelves.

“I don’t see why water should be picked on,” said Trevor Fenton, a retired Bundanoon resident. “What I’d like is to see them get rid of all the soft drinks, but they’d never do that.”

Environmentalists have been gaining traction in the fight against bottled water. In addition to the new restrictions by state and local governments in the United States, many high-profile restaurateurs have also begun replacing fancy imported water with tap water.

Recently, a United States Congressional committee debated whether to step up regulation on the bottled-water industry after reviewing two new studies that questioned whether bottled water was any safer than that from a tap.

The attention has irked the industry, which is worth around $60 billion a year worldwide and about $400 million a year in Australia. Industry groups say it is unfair to single out bottled water when many other consumer goods – like disposable diapers and imported produce, cheese and wine – have an equal or greater impact on the environment.

In Australia, most bottled water is produced domestically, in recyclable bottles that make up a very small proportion of landfill waste, according to Geoff Parker, the chief executive of the Australasian Bottled Water Institute.

“We need to keep the product in perspective,” Mr. Parker said. “There are tens of thousands of products in the fast-moving consumer goods sector, and we would suggest that there are a vast number that would have a larger carbon footprint than bottled water.”

The issue has touched a nerve. The day of the Bundanoon vote, the state government in New South Wales announced that it would stop buying bottled water, prompting the federal environment minister to urge other states to follow suit. The moves set off a flurry of newspaper editorials over the weekend and set the lines ablaze on talk radio shows across Australia.

The shopkeepers of Bundanoon say they have been amused by all the attention the ban has brought their way, and have even been offered a supply of specially branded reusable water bottles from a major European supplier.

Outside his newspaper and magazine store, Peter Stewart said the extra focus on Bundanoon was worth the $1,200 a year he expected to lose on bottled-water sales.

“That a group of people can get together over a few months and make headlines all over the world, it’s just amazing,” he said. “There’s a lot of pride in town.”

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