Houston Turns Back to Tap Water

That stuff flowing from the faucet is safe, cheap and environmental

"It's just so wasteful," says McAnear.

Last year Americans tossed over 22 billion plastic water bottles into the trash. It is estimated that only 15 to 20 percent of these get recycled — and probably even less here in Houston. According to the trade magazine Waste News, Houston residents are the worst in the country, recycling only 2.6 percent of their waste.

"I have seen those newspaper articles talking about the sheer amount of plastic that is thrown away from water bottles, and that is a staggering number," says Karl Pepple, director of environmental programming for the city. "You know, we have more pressing issues right now, looking at our air quality. Bottled water hasn't boiled to the top yet. It's something that we haven't spent a lot of time looking at."

Think Outside the Bottle is a national organization trying to get people to kick bottled water and turn on the tap.
Think Outside the Bottle is a national organization trying to get people to kick bottled water and turn on the tap.
Wrapped in yards of plastic, this bottled water stands ready for the next natural emergency or sports event.
Margaret Downing
Wrapped in yards of plastic, this bottled water stands ready for the next natural emergency or sports event.

Marina Joseph, the city's Solid Waste Management spokeswoman, says that unless people recycle their water bottles, they get tossed into the landfill, which is not where the city wants them.

Easier said than done. Almost all of the restaurateurs that the Press spoke with said they do not recycle water bottles.

"We do consider ourselves a green company," says Kevin Haagenson, general manager at Voice, located inside Hotel Icon, "but unfortunately there still is the bottle that's wasted at the end. We are throwing them away right now..."

Lagrone at *17 says the same thing.

"We do try to do our part," he says, "[but] I don't really pay a lot of attention to it."

Kerr says that when he worked under Pope, recycling "eventually got to the point where it was so much work." Plus, he says, "there's no money in it."

What there is money in, depending on who you talk to, is selling bottled water at restaurants.

"There is quite a big profit margin," says Haagenson. "When you're going from a product where you normally charge nothing at all, to be able to add $5 or $7, and sometimes they'll do a couple of bottles, onto the tab, it's not real substantial, but it definitely is another avenue we have to create revenue."

Lagrone, on the other hand, says the sale of Ducale at *17 does not fatten up the bottom line all that much.

"The cost on the bottles is fairly high as well," he says, "so the bump up in revenue is not a large amount. I'd say that over a month's time, the revenue for bottled water reaches about $3,000."

For some diners, like O'Rourke, that's way too much.

"At restaurants," he says, "I want my water in a glass, not a bottle. Good God. Bottled water is a needless expense with ramifications all the way down the line. It's wrong environmentally, it's wrong for your budget, it simply costs more."

Bottlemania ain't dead yet. Three out of four Americans drink bottled water, 20 percent preferring it exclusively over tap; we consume more of it per capita than any other nation in the world. Last year this translated to our swilling more than 70 million bottles per day, and spending nearly $11 billion doing so.

Dasani was America's number-one selling brand, with wholesale sales of $1.6 billion, PepsiCo's Aquafina sopped up $1.47 billion for second spot, and together with Nestlé's three top sellers they comprised 60 percent of the U.S. market.

Not bad for the big boys of the beverage world, especially considering how slow on the sip they were: Pepsi didn't roll out Aquafina until 1994, and Coke took five additional years to answer with Dasani — an ice age for companies such as these.

Yet recently, sales have begun to go flat. In 2007, those 70 million bottles a day, when measured by volume, represented a 6.1 percent rise from the prior year — the lowest rate of growth since 1992. And Coca-Cola Enterprises Inc. recently cut its outlook for the quarter, the stated culprit a weak North American economy that has bottlenecked water and soda sales — especially 20-ounce single serving sizes.

In the 1990s, the sale of personal-sized bottles was growing more than 20 percent a year, says Hemphill of the Beverage Marketing Corporation. That number is also beginning to dip. In 2006, the growth rate was 18 percent, says Hemphill, and in 2007 it was about 10 percent.

"Some of it is the fact that the category at this point is just so large," says Hemphill, "and some of it is because of some of the recent publicity questioning it from an environmental standpoint and some of the comparisons made with tap water. I would expect the growth rate in 2008 to be slower. Given that, though, I still think the upside for growth is pretty solid for the years ahead."

Numbers aside, what has to be most distressing for the industrialists is that the cachet of bottled water, a product so iconic as to have once been described by Lisa Margonelli in The New York Times as "an iPod for your kidney," is slipping away slowly but definitely. The industry, meanwhile, is strenuously slogging to stem public backlash from swelling into a wave. And it is doing so by wielding the same weapon that stimulated the public's thirst in the first place.

Marketing: Now available in vi­brant green.

"Sip with a clear conscience" read recent promos for Fiji water, a "truly eco-friendly" drink. Nestlé's Zephyrhills brand boosts itself as being "a celebration of what's most natural about Florida." PepsiCo really pours it on when touting its partnership with a Return The Warmth program "that transformed recycled Aquafina bottles into 100,000 fleece jackets for children." Dasani and Aquafina alone spent $43.4 million in advertising last year.

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