Saturday, June 13, 2009

Acqua Veritas

Water has gotten pretty trendy over the last decade or so. One unfortunate consequence of this has been a proliferation of plastic as bottlers and clever PR firms have succeeded in convincing consumers that their product is not only healthy but as chic as designer jeans to boot.

This has created a real dilemma in Venice of all places where the plastic from discarded bottles is piling up fast. The mayor of the "City of Water" is leading a campaign of his own designed to wean Venetians off the bottle and return to the tap. (GW)

City Known for Its Water Turns to Tap to Cut Trash

VENICE — In this hot and noble city, discarded water bottles float by gondolas on the edges of the canals and spill out of trash cans on the majestic Piazza San Marco. Because Venice has no roads, trash must be collected on foot at enormous expense. And while plastic bottles can in principle be recycled, the process still unleashes greenhouse gases.

Italians are the leading consumers of bottled water in the world, drinking more than 40 gallons per person annually. But as their environmental consciousness deepens, officials here are avidly promoting what was previously unthinkable: that Italians should drink tap water.

For decades bottled water has been the norm on European tables, although tap water in many, if not most, cities is suitable for drinking. Since the 1980s, the bottled water habit has also taken hold in the United States, prompting cities from New York to San Francisco to wage public education campaigns to encourage the use of tap water to reduce plastic waste.

But here in Venice, officials took a leaf from the advertising playbook that has helped make bottled water a multibillion-dollar global industry. They invented a lofty brand name for Venice’s tap water — Acqua Veritas — created a sleek logo and emblazoned it on stylish carafes that were distributed free to households.

Because tap water is often jokingly called “the mayor’s water” in Italy, they even enlisted regional politicians to star in tongue-in-cheek billboards. “I, too, drink the mayor’s water,” proclaims Venice’s mayor, a philosopher named Massimo Cacciari, as he pours a glass.

“There are so many advantages to Acqua Veritas,” said Riccardo Seccarello, a city official, whose office is adorned by an Acqua Veritas poster into which President Obama’s picture has been Photoshopped. “Tap water doesn’t require a bottle. Its quality is controlled more strictly than bottled water. It’s really cheap. And you don’t have to walk to a market to get it.”

He also leaked a little information that city officials have made sure everyone now knows: Venice’s tap water comes from deep underground in the same region as one of Italy’s most popular bottled waters, San Benedetto.

Bottled water is a booming global industry with hundreds of brands that are advertised for their trendy appeal as well as their professed health benefits.

Twelve billion gallons of water were sold in 16 Western European countries in 2007, according to Zenith International, a market research firm, with Italy followed by Germany, France, Spain and Britain as market leaders. In the United States, per capita consumption of bottled water more than doubled from 1997 to 2007, to 29 gallons, according to the Beverage Marketing Corporation.

The growth of the industry has been a bête noire for environmentalists, who lament the amount of fossil fuel energy used to bottle water and, often, to ship it long distances. Then there is also the impact of the enormous amount of plastic waste produced by the habit. Recycling is a plus but has logistical limits and generates some emissions anyway as bottles are transported and reprocessed.

Trash is an especially costly problem in Venice, in any case, because it is collected by men with wheelbarrows along the canals. Collection costs $335 per ton compared with $84 per ton on the mainland, said Mr. Seccarello, the city official.

Three years ago Venice created Veritas, a municipal umbrella company that is responsible both for city water and for trash collection in the region. Officials of the new company realized that by promoting the former, they could reduce the latter.

In terms of trash reduction, the Acqua Veritas campaign has already been a success, Venetian officials calculate, reducing the amount of plastic trash over all to 261 tons a month now from 288 tons a year ago.

“I’ve discovered tap water; I actually like the taste better,” said Silvia Vatta, 25, a student who was buying fish at a stall near the Accademia Bridge. “We used to use bottled water because we grew up with it at home and didn’t know any better.”

Still, the campaign to promote the mayor’s water has made little headway with restaurants and stores, which make money selling bottled water. And in a city where tourists outnumber permanent residents 100 to 1, public education that concentrates on locals can go only so far in reducing plastic waste.

Nonetheless, Mr. Seccarello has a message for bottle-toting tourists: in Venice, as in Rome, public spouts are scattered about the city and the water is “perfectly safe” to drink.

In fact, many older Venetians remember a time before bottled water, which first became popular here in the 1970s after a series of scares about the safety of the water supply. Yet over the next decade its use became the norm, a sign of financial prosperity.

“At first it was only for fancy stuff, but then it became the style,” said Renato Bonacin, 61, an artisanal metal worker who recently retired.

Because Venice’s water comes from a deep clean aquifer, perhaps, many here never entirely converted to bottled water. Two years ago, 72 percent of Venetians still sometimes drank tap water. That figure has risen to 79 percent.

Many people still prefer to filter tap water because it can contain mineral sediment. Acqua Veritas advises people to let it sit for a few minutes if there is a residual whiff of chlorine, which is used in the system to ensure hygiene.

Giancarlo Demuru, walking with a cane and dressed all in white, said that 20 years ago he used bottled water even to make tea, because Venice’s water then tasted slightly salty. But it has improved with better water management, he said.

In light of the Acqua Veritas campaign, he now uses bottled water only when guests want fizzy water. But the city now has an answer for that, too: it is offering discounts on carbonators.


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