Tuesday, July 7, 2009

That water bottle you throw away today could still be around 1,000 years from now, an environmental hazard Arlington officials are trying to change.

The Arlington County Board last month banned the purchase of single-serving water bottles by county government agencies to help lower the pollution and waste associated with plastic bottles.

“I have always been offended by the large amount of water bottles that litter the streets and waterways, especially knowing that our governments spend huge sums of tax dollars to provide safe, healthy drinking water,” said board Vice Chairman Jay Fisette.

More than 30 billion plastic water bottles become garbage or litter each year in the United States, according to the Sierra Club, a grass-roots environmental organization established in 1892.

The accumulation of empty plastic bottles in landfills is not the only problem. Most bottles are made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which creates 100 times more toxic emissions than a glass bottle of the same size, according to the Berkeley Ecology Center, an environmental organization that provides information to the public on sustainable practices. The 31.2 billion liters of bottled water sold in 2006 required almost 900,000 tons of plastic and created more than 2.5 million tons of carbon dioxide, according to the Pacific Institute.

In its June 16 resolution, the Arlington board stated that “the use of plastic water bottles has grown 12 percent since 1997 and approximately two million tons of number one plastic bottles are not recycled, equating to nearly 18 million barrels of crude oil in lost energy value.”

The amount of energy needed to produce one water bottle is equal to filling a plastic bottle a quarter of the way with oil, according to the Pacific Institute.

Transporting water to bottling plants, warehouses and stores and sending the bottles to landfills or recycling centers creates additional pollution, while cooling the bottled water in refrigerators requires even more energy. Conversely, tap water requires little energy to pump into offices and homes.

The board resolution also states that “Arlington County is in the business of producing safe, healthy tap water that meets and exceeds all state and federal standards, while bottled water is largely unregulated.”

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets standards for tap water, while the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sets them for bottled water. Some bottled water may be treated more than tap, while others also could be treated less or not at all, according to the EPA’s Web site.

There is no disputing that bottled water costs more than tap, often being 500 to 4,000 times more expensive than tap water, according to the Sierra Club. It costs Arlington County $3.35 for every 1,000 gallons of tap water, while the same amount of bottled water costs $2,560, according to the board’s resolution.

While the change will be different for Arlington, officials maintain that public health and safety of employees and residents will not be compromised. The resolution went into effect immediately.

“We are looking at how can we save money doing this and how can we help the environment at the same time,” said Bob Griffin, director of the county’s environmental services. “It makes sense for where we are fiscally and environmentally, but at no point in time will the public health and safety of employees be compromised. That requires us to think about how we can put large-volume containers onto the work sites, stuff we are already doing to make sure our employees and kids at camp have enough liquids in them.”

Drinking from reusable metal or glass containers while traveling, filling pitchers at home and the office and making sure quality tap water is available to the entire community are just a few ways to reduce the usage of single-serving water bottles. The ban does not extend to private businesses or the general public, but county officials hope the government can set an environmental example for its residents.

“While there will be a saving of tax dollars, the greater impact will be the public awareness that is created over time,” Mr. Fisette said. “People should be encouraged to drink lots of tap water in reusable bottles.”

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