Q&A: SF Mayor's Battle Against Water Bottles

When San Francisco recently banned the use of plastic grocery bags as part of its campaign to fight global warming, the city drew international attention. Now, plastic water bottles are in the cross hairs. This week, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom signed an executive order banning the use of city funds to purchase single-serving plastic water bottles. The order also prohibits the sale of such water containers on city-owned property. The move is part of a campaign by the city to boost the environmental awareness of its already-green citizens by getting them to use tap water instead of bottled water—and cut down on the acres of plastic generated in the process. Residents who sign an online pledge not to buy bottles can get a stainless-steel recyclable container from the city for free. Newsom spoke with NEWSWEEK's Karen Breslau about San Francisco's latest trend-setting environmental campaign—and his own efforts to break the bottled water habit. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Salt Lake City has also banned bottled water for its employees. Why are cities taking the lead in persuading people to stop buying bottled water?
Gavin Newsom:
The transportation and distribution, developing the plastic for the water bottles, the cost of the water, has a huge environmental and economic impact. As a consequence of the prolific growth in bottled waters, we in the city feel we have a responsibility to address its cost and its environmental impact. We are looking to eliminate completely all of bottled water consumption supported by city money but also to begin an educational campaign to convey the real cost of bottled water, transported half way around the world. We are looking at a marketing campaign showing bottled water compared to a barrel of oil, that shows it takes far more energy to transport the water than the oil.

You're talking about these little single-serving bottles like the ones I've got all over my desk and feel guilty about?
I was having one in the car today, and I was feeling badly as well. We are not preaching what we don't intend to practice.

Representatives from the bottled-water industry say it's unfair to single out their product. Thousands of food and beverage items come in plastic packaging, they point out—and consumers like having a healthy choice of water, instead of buying drinks containing sugar and calories.
Yes, but the difference between bottled water and Diet Coke is that you can't get Diet Coke from the tap. It's not like any other bottled liquids. These people are making huge amounts of money selling God's natural resources. Sorry, we're not going to be part of it. Our water in San Francisco comes from the Hetch Hetchy [reservoir] and is some of the most pristine water on the planet. Our water is arguably cleaner than a vast majority of the bottled water sold as "pure."

You'll be raising this campaign with the U.S. Conference of Mayors. And in Salt Lake City, Mayor Rocky Anderson has also banned his employees from using plastic water bottles. Other cities are looking into bottling their own municipal supplies and competing with commercial brands. Why are mayors all over bottled water all of a sudden?
You can start from our roles as fiduciaries. In San Francisco, we spend over $500,000 a year on bottled water, and it's no better than our own tap water. Why are we paying for something that's free to us? We are going to save a ton of money. But it's also clear as we go around the country, or even around the world—I heard the same thing at the Davos summit—that people are talking about the environmental footprint of bottled water. It's become a narrative over the past year. We as mayors recognize, as we've seen through our purchases of alternative-fuel vehicles for city fleets, that we can make purchasing decisions without asking permission. One gallon of bottled water costs the same as 10,000 gallons of tap water. We are going to offer our best practices to other mayors and are asking all cities to take a look at this issue. We did this with our recent ban on the use of noncompostable plastic grocery bags in San Francisco and got a lot of attention.

Are you expecting some pushback from the industry?
The bottled water industry is huge; we are arguing to reduce the consumption of bottled water and that is going to wake up this giant. I imagine every marketer, whether its Coca-Cola with their Dasani brand or whoever, will spend their money saying I'm full of it.

I've seen you gulping on occasion from a plastic water bottle. What are you doing to reform your own habits?
About a year ago, my director of the office of the environment, Jared Blumenfeld, saw a case of Fiji water outside my office and he walked in furiously and said, "Do you know what you are doing to the environment?" You have to set a better example. It's not enough that I have an electric car. I have to slowly wean myself off. I'm not sitting here perfect. I'm trying at home what we provide all of our city employees.

A reusable stainless-steel bottle?
You'll see me with a fancy recycled bottle; I've got about a dozen different prototypes, bottles for bikers, for hikers, every kind you can imagine. But it does [take] getting used to. They are not as portable and clean as they appear to be. I recycle my bottles, but I am hardly going to be the poster child. Still, it's a start.