Bottled Water Paradox: Banned, and Required
After two years of extremely heated debate that included references to ecology, history, geography, and the politics of selling or buying mass-produced cupcakes, the Park Slope Food Co-op in Brooklyn voted at the end of last month to discontinue the sale of bottled water. It comes to about 670 gallons of water per week.
Just as the co-op (membership: 13,966) has been selling its last few ounces of designer water, NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia hospital is very quietly going into its third year with signs posted over every sink in one of its newest buildings that say: “Do not drink the water. Use bottled water for drinking, brushing teeth, or taking medication.”
This translates to bottles of water by the tens of thousands, every year.
So at one end of town they have banished tap water; 18 miles away, they’ve banned bottled water.
The food co-op in Park Slope is 35 years old, and is owned by its members, all of whom must work two hours and 45 minutes every four weeks; those caught slacking on the job are investigated by a disciplinary committee. At various times, the co-op has refused to sell Chilean grapes, Pepperidge Farm cookies and any products from South Africa. All these decisions were connected with specific political issues, like the overthrow of a democratically elected president in Chile or a union fight. Red meat made it onto the shelves within the last seven years.
“We buy a cow per week from a farmer in the Finger Lakes,” Joe Holtz, a founder of the co-op, said on Tuesday. “It’s grass-fed beef and locally raised.”
The debate over bottled water began two years ago, when three members pointed out the environmental costs of bottled water and argued that as a matter of principle, the organization ought to stop selling it. In the pages of the co-op’s newsletter, The Linewaiters’ Gazette, the debate raged.
“Bottled Water Initiative — the Plot Thickens,” read one headline.
“I just feel that taking bottled water away from consumers is forcing an agenda on people,” Yachet Lebovits wrote in a letter. “Don’t demand totality in a world where it doesn’t exist.”
To those who said the sale of bottled water was simply a matter of giving the members a choice, David Barouh, one of the sponsors of the proposal to ban it, said that missed the point. After all, he wrote, “Should the Co-op provide Twinkies or Ring Dings or, for that matter, cigarettes? Shouldn’t the members have those options, too?”
Conspicuous earnestness, of which there is no shortage in Park Slope, can be exhausting, but the use of bottled water, when tap water is a reasonable alternative, commands serious consideration.
On average, a resident of North America consumes about 80 liters, or 21 gallons, of bottled water per year, according to an exhibit now being presented at the Museum of Natural History. By the time shipping and manufacturing are toted up, about a quarter-bottle of oil is needed to produce each bottle of water. And a gallon of bottled water costs about 1,000 times as much as a gallon of tap, $10 as opposed to a penny.
Still, the matter was not simply resolved. Was city water really better or just as safe? Isn’t fluoride in public water supplies really an offshoot of the Manhattan Project rather than an anti-tooth decay measure? What about the exercise value of lugging water, and what about lead pipes, and could a filter at home really do the job of purifying tap water?
And what about that beef, which leaves the Finger Lakes every week looking very much like a cow but on its way to Brooklyn is transformed into scores of shrink-wrapped packages — how could that be O.K. while bottled water was being voted off the island?
At a meeting on April 29, about 180 members voted overwhelmingly to end the bottled water sales, including distilled water, which some people use in their clothes irons. The ban did not, however, extend to soda or seltzer water.
“You don’t turn on your faucet and get carbonated water,” Mr. Holtz explained.
As for the bottled water being guzzled by the truckload at NewYork-Presbyterian’s Milstein building in Washington Heights, it turns out that no one has been allowed to use the tap water since 2005, when two patients died from Legionnaire’s disease. It came from a common bacterium that grows rapidly in industrial-sized water systems.
Three years later, the hospital is still trying to get the bacteria in its water supply system down to a level that will not make people sick. “Until that is resolved, we will not be serving tap water,” a hospital spokesman, Bryan Dotson, said on Tuesday.
By JIM DWYER