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.
America's 'Think Outside the Bottle' campaign
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?
Reusable bottles proposed
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 beverages. 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.
Ban criticized for removing consumer choice
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.'"