SAN FRANCISCO — San Francisco, the city that regulated Happy Meal toys and banned plastic grocery bags, has a new target in its health-conscious, eco-friendly crosshairs: plastic water bottles.
City officials are considering an ordinance that would require owners of new and renovated buildings with water fountains to install special bottle-filling taps. The law's designed to encourage thirsty people to refill containers instead of reaching for another bottle of Evian or Aquafina.
"This is the appropriate next step to make it easier for San Franciscans to get out of the bad habit of using environmentally wasteful plastic water bottles and into the good habit of using reusable water containers," said Board of Supervisors President David Chiu, who introduced the legislation in June.
Bottle-filling taps like the ones that would be required if Chiu's measure passes already are found at San Francisco International Airport and at some city parks and schools. Installed behind a drinking fountain's regular faucet, they dispense chilled water in a quick-streaming vertical jet that is high enough to accommodate most water containers.
Advocates say having bottle-specific spigots encourages the reuse of water bottles by eliminating long waits to fill them and removing concerns about germs. Some people squirm at the thought of drinking from a fountain exposed to so many mouths, although city officials say water fountains are no less hygienic than bottle taps.
Skeptics question whether the ordinance is necessary, since the proposed taps pour the same highly-regarded public water that comes out of every other faucet and drinking fountain. Businesses often complain that San Francisco lawmakers are too quick to impose bans or restrictions that affect their bottom lines.
"If you are in an office, your kitchen has a sink, the sink has a faucet and that faucet puts out Hetch Hetchy (reservoir) water," San Francisco Building Owners and Managers Association representative Ken Cleaveland said. "It's just one more new law that San Francisco is implementing on top of hundreds of other laws to make, rather force, compliance in sustainable practices."
Despite initial skepticism, the association is waiting for more details before taking a stance on the law
Adding a bottled-water spigot to existing water fountains would cost at least around $750, according to manufacturers.
For officials at Pennsylvania State University, the cost has been worthwhile. The university is now installing taps on all its campuses after experimenting with them for three years, said Lydia Vandenbergh, an official overseeing the university's effort to reduce use of plastic water bottles. Students were more receptive to filling bottles from special taps than drinking fountains, thought to be dirty.
"In the era of hyper hygiene, for a lot of people, that's a barrier," Vandenbergh said. University officials have estimated the busiest tap replaces the equivalent of 35,000 plastic bottles a month.
Chiu's ordinance calls plastic water bottles "bad for the environment," unnecessarily taking up landfill space and causing greenhouse gas emissions when cheap tap water is available. San Francisco city departments have been barred from buying plastic water bottles since 2007.
Chiu said he considered other aggressive measures to curb the bottle, including a fee and an outright ban. The proposed ordinance is less severe and is meant to raise awareness about drinking tap water as an alternative, he said.
Environmental groups are supportive of efforts to wean San Franciscans from plastic water bottles.
"San Francisco has among the best drinking water in country. It's ridiculous that people would go out and spend their now very limited dollars to buy bottled water," said Mae Wu, an attorney with the National Resources Defense Council.
Chris Hogan, an International Bottled Water Association spokesman, said his industry contributes a small fraction of worldwide energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. He welcomed efforts to encourage drinking tap water, but said they don't require demonizing bottled water.
"When you make the argument to discourage people from drinking bottled water, you are removing the healthiest option when it comes to choosing a bottled beverage," Hogan said.
Chiu introduced the ordinance at a board of supervisors meeting on June 26. It is expected to go before the supervisors' Land Use and Economic Development Committee in September and if it passes, on to the full board of supervisors.