When the residents in Bundanoon voted this month to stop selling bottled water in town, they never expected to be thrust into the global spotlight.
With a nearly unanimous show of hands at a community meeting, the people in this small tourist town touched off a worldwide debate about the social and environmental effects of bottled water that has put the industry on edge.
State and local officials across the US have been phasing out the use of bottled water at government workplaces in recent years, citing a variety of concerns, including the energy used to make and transport the bottles and an erosion of public trust in municipal water supplies. But as far as campaigners are aware, Bundanoon is the first town in the world to stop all sales of bottled water.
Set in the cool highlands southwest of Sydney, Bundanoon is a town of tidy gardens and quaint cottages surrounded by the weekend estates of wealthy urbanites. It is the sort of place where strangers strike up conversations on park benches along the picturesque main street and townsfolk leave fresh flowers on the local war memorial.
‘BUNDY ON TAP’
Huw Kingston, owner of Ye Olde Bicycle Shoppe and a leader of the “Bundy on Tap” campaign, said the ban did not begin as an environmental crusade. It started when a bottling company sought permission to extract millions of liters of water from the local aquifer.
At first, residents were upset at the prospect of tanker trucks rumbling through their quiet streets. But as opposition grew, Kingston said many residents began to question the idea of trucking water about 160km north to a bottling plant in Sydney, only to transport it somewhere else — possibly even back to Bundanoon — for sale.
“We became aware, as a community, of what the bottled-water industry was all about,” Kingston said. “So the idea was floated that if we don’t want an extraction plant in our town, maybe we shouldn’t be selling the end product at all.”
A dozen or so activists got together and called a community meeting. Of the 356 residents who turned out to vote on the ban by a show of hands, only one objected.
PULLED FROM SHELVES
The ban is entirely voluntary. But with the support of the public, the town’s six food retailers have agreed to pull bottled water from their shelves starting in September. They plan to recoup their losses by selling inexpensive, reusable bottles that can be filled at drinking fountains and filtered water dispensers to be placed around town.
Some of the town’s 2,500 residents say they support the plan because they worry about the effects of chemicals in plastic bottles; some view it as a positive demonstration against the water plant.
Others, however, are skeptical that the local council can afford to maintain the new drinking fountains, while still others worry about the health implications of leaving only sweetened alternatives on refrigerator shelves.
“I don’t see why water should be picked on,” said Trevor Fenton, a retired Bundanoon resident. “What I’d like is to see them get rid of all the soft drinks, but they’d never do that.”
Environmentalists have been gaining traction in the fight against bottled water. In addition to the new restrictions by state and local governments in the US, many high-profile restaurateurs have also begun replacing fancy imported water with tap water.