Americans used about 50 billion plastic water bottles last year. However, the U.S.’s recycling rate for plastic is only 23 percent, which means 38 billion water bottles – more than $1 billion worth of plastic – are wasted each year. Many people drink bottled water because they believe it to be of a higher quality, cleaner and better-tasting, but that’s not necessarily true. In the U.S., public water is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which requires multiple daily tests for bacteria and makes results available to the public. The Food and Drug Administration, which regulates bottled water, only requires weekly testing and does not share its findings with the EPA or the public.
Given America’s addiction to plastic water bottles, politicians in San Francisco were convinced they had to pursue a progressive environmental regulation no other major US city had dared – a ban on bottled water. San Francisco was the first in the US to pass a comprehensive mandatory recycling and composting law. The liberal California city had previously led the way on banning plastic shopping bags, but the 2014 proposal to restrict bottled water was more modest; officials limited the bottled water ban to city-owned land, leaving private businesses unaffected. “San Francisco has wonderful, high-quality water,” Tyrone Jue, senior advisor on the environment in the mayor’s office, told The Guardian. “It’s more heavily regulated than the water you’re getting in bottles.”
The ordinance, which has expanded in recent years, also bars the sale of bottled water at large events on city properties and prohibits San Francisco government agencies from purchasing plastic bottled water. Legislators also called for increased investment in water fountains, filling stations and event water hook-ups. Banned from selling bottled water at city events, some vendors switched to alternatives that are also ecologically harmful, such as water in cans, glass bottles or other single-use containers. The city responded earlier this year by expanding the law to restrict the sale or distribution of “packaged” water on city property, including sealed boxes, bags, cans and other containers with a capacity of one liter or less.
San Francisco’s measure is particularly forward-thinking in the way it prioritizes increasing access to safe tap water, which is critical at a time when there are increasing concerns about contamination of water supplies in the US following the crisis in Flint, Michigan. According to The Guardian’s report, San Francisco is not currently exploring a broader citywide prohibition on bottled water Following the success of major plastic bag bans across the country, environmental activists are increasingly turning their attention to plastic bottles, while praising the city’s attempt to reinforce water as a public good rather than a commodity that can be bought and sold by corporations.