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Opposition to bottled water picks up steam

A small but growing movement to ban or restrict bottled water from college campuses to airports to public facilities -- has put Coca-Cola and others in the beverage industry in its cross hairs.

Organizers of the bans contend that bottled water is wasteful, contributes to ballooning landfills and is being marketed as a necessity by an industry making billions on what consumers used to happily get from a kitchen tap or public fountain.

Those criticisms are wrong or overblown, the industry says.

The effort has not stopped the growth in sales of bottled water but is gaining some traction. After a well-organized campaign to ban bottled water at the Grand Canyon -- including a online petition that collected more than 100,000 digital signatures -- the National Park Service agreed to give superintendents the option of prohibiting bottled water provided the bans pass a "rigorous impact analysis."

That authority took effect with the new year.

"I believe it's a positive development," said Stiv Wilson, a leader in the call for a ban at the Grand Canyon. "It shows a contingency of voices can be heard."

Officials at the Grand Canyon say they'll make a decision this spring, according to reports.

Beverage industry leaders, including those at Coke, say bottled water does not deserve to be singled out. They say that its contributions to landfill waste are no larger than other products' and that much of the packaging used is 100 percent recyclable. That includes Coke's Dasani, which is packaged in a bottle made up of 30 percent plant-based materials.

John Sicher, editor and publisher of Beverage Digest, an industry publication, said that it's too late to turn back the clock on bottled water.

The category grew by 4.7 percent in the last nine months of 2011, and about 3 billion cases were sold in 2010, the most recent full-year numbers available. The biggest player is Nestle, which sells such brands as Poland Spring, Zephyrhills and Pure Life.

In 2010, Coke sold about 293 million cases of its top brand, Dasani, while rival Pepsi sold 291 million cases of Aquafina.

"Consumers have spoken," Sicher said. "Consumers like bottled water, and that will remain for the foreseeable future."

Proponents of restrictions on bottled water use different approaches.

Environmentalists have called for outright bans, pointing out that in addition to filling landfills with plastic bottles, bottled water is also wasteful because of the amount of oil and water that it takes to produce the plastic.

Governments in at least seven states and several cities have either banned bottled water from municipal facilities for environmental reasons or eliminated its purchase to save money.

Two big airports, San Francisco International and Portland International, and many schools have added "hydration stations" -- water dispensers in plain English -- for use by people with their own containers. Some schools, including Seattle University, Oberlin College, the University of Portland and Washington University in St. Louis, have sought to restrict sales, though they haven't banned bottled water.

Part of the issue stems from bottled water's success, everyone agrees. With obesity at epidemic proportions in the United States, bottled water offered an alternative to sugary, carbonated drinks, industry leaders said. It also has been invaluable during disasters or during boil water advisories, they add. Others note that bottled water keeps consumers from reaching for sugary drinks in places where tap water doesn't taste good.

Environmentalists are not convinced. They contend that tap water is better for consumers, specifically because it contains fluoride recommended for healthy teeth. (Some bottled waters also contain fluoride, though Dasani does not.)

The industry is fighting back. In addition to efforts to reduce its footprint through the development of packaging made of renewable resources, it touts its recycling record, which the International Bottled Water Association said is best in the beverage industry.

Susan Stribling, a spokeswoman for Coke, said the company formed Coca-Cola Recycling in 2007 "to recover bottles and cans from the marketplace and turn them into the next generation of bottles and cans. Currently we recover nearly 40 percent of our production and aspire to recover an equivalent to what we put out in the marketplace."

Chris Hogan, a spokesman for the International Bottled Water Association, said the group tries to coordinate with cities or organizations that want to ban or restrict bottled water. He said that some of them have moderated their views after finding unintended consequences, such as when Vermont leaders learned that not all state facilities have access to clean drinking water, making a ban unworkable.

It's important to remember that water is actually not free, but is paid for by consumers or governments through monthly bills or taxes, he said.

"We are not against tap water," he said. "We just think bottled water is a choice people should have."