The days of water bottles in city offices and public schools are numbered.
At a meeting of the Board of Aldermen’s City Services and Environmental Policy Committee on Tuesday night, aldermen unanimously voted to recommend an order forbidding the city to spend money on bottled water. The meeting drew an audience that filled the seats at the aldermanic chamber in City Hall, and many of the attendees testified before the committee in favor of the order. The ban’s chief proponent is committee chair and Ward 10 Alderman Justin Elicker FES ’10 SOM ’10, who testified for it on economic, public health, and environmental grounds. Including Elicker, 16 out of the city’s 30 alderpeople are now co-sponsors of the proposed ban.
The city spent nearly $32,000 in the last fiscal year for five-gallon bubblers in city offices. While the cost savings from their elimination would be a “drop in the bucket,” Elicker said, they would be significant over time.
While the Board of Aldermen has discretion over items in the city’s budget such as bottled water, it cannot mandate the Board of Education to end its purchases, Chief Administrative Officer Robert Smuts ’01 said. No member of the Board of Education was available to testify before the committee, Smuts said, adding that he was asked to be the Board’s messenger.
Smuts, who testified in favor of the proposed ban, said Board of Education members want the committee to schedule another meeting at which they will be able to attend.
Elicker said he has so far been frustrated with the Board of Education’s responsiveness to the proposal.
“It’s difficult for the committee to wait until they have time,” Elicker said.
Smuts said he would act as a messenger in the other direction and relay Elicker’s comments to the Board of Education.
THE WRONG MESSAGE
There is also a symbolic reason for banning the city’s use of bottled water, said Elicker.
“Our kids are being taught that tap water isn’t safe, and we need to educate them that they don’t need to pay for water every time they’re thirsty,” Elicker said. “Having bottled water in city offices sends the wrong message.”
The city’s bottled water is trucked down Interstate 91 from Worcester, Mass., Elicker said, which not only creates unnecessary pollution, but also embarrasses the city by implying that “our water isn’t good enough.”
In a move that drew laughter from the chamber audience, Elicker distributed to the committee’s aldermen samples from water fountains in eight city buildings, including four schools. He also put a large trash bag on top of the committee’s table full of plastic water bottles. Most plastic bottles in the city are incinerated, Elicker said, in addition to “littering our parks, floating in our rivers, and polluting the Long Island Sound.”
Finally, Elicker said the plastic used in bottled water contains materials that have been linked to increased likelihood of cancer.
AT LEAST SOME SKEPTICISM
Although he was not present at the committee’s meeting Tuesday night, Mayor John DeStefano Jr. is one of the ban’s skeptics.
Having water bottles readily available to students in school cafeterias encourages them to choose water over less healthy drinks, DeStefano said in an interview Monday night. Developing consumption habits that include water will benefit kids as they grow up, he said.
“I would err on the side of promoting the public health of our young people,” DeStefano said, adding that the sale of water bottles in schools covers what the city spends on them.
Ward 29 Alderman and President of the Board of Aldermen Carl Goldfield disagreed, arguing that the schools have already eliminated unhealthy options such as sodas and sugary “fake” juices. Goldfield added that during his time in school, he had no complaints about relying on fountains for water.
The cost issue is more relevant for the five-gallon coolers in City Hall, DeStefano said, but he said he would be hesitant to remove those too, since he believes they also encourage water consumption over less healthy alternatives.
Smuts admitted that it would be a challenge to convince at least some employees not to bring their own water bottles — or soda or other drinks, for that matter — if the bubblers were removed.
Ward 3 Alderwoman Jacqueline James-Evans said she is skeptical of the quality of water fountains in the city’s buildings.
“Who in this room would, given the choice, drink out of the water fountain in City Hall?” James-Evans asked.
A sea of hands shot up in the audience.
With the recommendation of the committee, the bottled water ban now heads to the full Board of Aldermen, which may take a final vote on it as early as March 7.