Nothing irks Salt Lake City Mayor Ross (Rocky) Anderson more than seeing people tote water in plastic bottles. In fact, he argues, his city has some of the best tap water in the country. Several months ago, Anderson instructed department heads to stop buying bottled water for the city's 2,200 workers and provide coolers and fountains instead. "For a long time, I've viewed [bottled water] as a huge marketing scam," he says.
Considering that Americans chug more than 30 billion single-serving bottles of water a year, Anderson's campaign is at most a drop in the you-know-what. But there are signs of a push to bring back the tap, led by mayors who want to cut down on global warming. Anderson is urging the U.S. Conference of Mayors to promote tap water as a way to limit greenhouse-gas emissions. In San Francisco, residents who sign an online pledge not to buy plastic water bottles get a free stainless-steel water container. Some cities, aware that companies filter and sell municipal tap water under exotic names (Coca-Cola's Dasani, PepsiCo's Aquafina), are looking to bottle it themselves and use the profits for recycling programs.
Most water brands are packaged in a plastic derived from crude oil, polyethylene terephthalate (PET). Those containers are then transported on diesel-burning trucks—or shipped in from exotic destinations like Fiji, generating greenhouse gases. "It's the most environmentally egregious way to distribute water," says Jennifer Gitlitz of the Container Recycling Institute, which found that only 14 percent of single-serving PET water bottles were recycled nationwide in 2004.
The bottled-water industry, which saw sales triple to $10.8 billion in 2006 from a decade earlier, argues that its product is being singled out unfairly. "The choice isn't bottled versus tap water," says Stephen Kay of the International Bottled Water Association. "Consumers are choosing bottled water in lieu of beverages that contain sugar, calories and alcohol."