Ditch the Bottle

Since the emergence of single-use plastic water bottles, the prevalence of water fountains has been declining in San Francisco and in most cities across the country.

Project Report: 1000 Fountains

It’s Saturday afternoon, and my wife and I are out on an urban walk in San Francisco. Our destination: The Palace of Fine Arts — a scenic Roman-style monument that attracts locals and tourists alike year-round. We’ve been walking for about 15 minutes when we start to get thirsty. I shake my head when I realize we both forgot to carry our water bottles. “Not to worry,” I say, “I’m sure we’ll find a drinking fountain on the way.”

photo of a child drinking from a fountain
Photo by Istockphoto.

We don’t pass one on the way. When we arrive, it’s a busy day at the Palace — people are strolling around the lake, taking pictures of the awe-inspiring structure, or reading books on park benches. We’ve been walking for almost 45 minutes now, and we’re quite parched. Unfortunately, we still don’t spot a water fountain (On a later trip, I did discover one fountain tucked away at the far end of the park.)

As we left the Palace, I thought to myself, Why is it so hard to find a drinking fountain in the city?

The answer is actually pretty simple. Since the emergence of single-use plastic water bottles, the prevalence of water fountains has been declining in San Francisco and in most cities across the country. In particular, well-funded marketing campaigns by the beverage industry in the past few decades scared the public into believing bottled water is safer than municipal water. The tactic may be sinister, but it worked. Today, 77 percent of the public is concerned about the safety of the water coming out of their taps, and since 2016, bottled water has been the best-selling beverage in the United States. Sales continue to grow every year, and sadly, plastic bottles are now the third most common item found in marine debris.

If we’re serious about stopping, and reversing the plastic pollution trend any time soon, we need a comprehensive approach that involves multiple solutions. One of those is tackling plastic water bottles.

The most important step in that regard is to help people regain trust in their public drinking water. That is a tall order, especially given serious water contamination crises — including lead contamination in Michigan, and PFAS contamination across the country — that have rightly worried residents. Federal, state, and city governments must invest in water infrastructure in every corner of our country and ensure it meets the highest safety standards and rebuilds public trust. Anything short of that won’t be sufficient.

But fear is not the only reason people buy bottled water. Even in San Francisco, a city that boasts some of the safest and best-tasting water in the country, people often opt for bottled options — an estimated 285 million single-use plastic water bottles were sold in the city in 2017. That’s an average of about 220 bottles per person.

Learn more about this Earth Island project at 1000fountains.org

Why is that? Research shows that those who buy plastic water bottles don’t really want the plastic, but they do want the convenience. People want to be able to have a drink of water when they get thirsty. Not everyone has bought into reusable bottles, and even those who have sometimes forget to bring them. (Guilty!) Our solution at 1000 Fountains takes care of both problems. If we build enough drinking fountains, no one will ever need to buy a bottle of water again. Simply put, we intend to make public drinking fountains the most convenient choice for anyone who gets thirsty in the city.

Specifically, we plan to install 1000 fountains on sidewalks and in parks in every San Francisco neighborhood within the next ten years. The fountains will also help save money — people spent a total of almost $500 million on bottled water in 2017 in San Francisco alone. And these fountains will be built to accommodate everyone, including people in wheelchairs, children, and even people with a thirsty pet.

Getting this done will not be easy. Drinking fountains are expensive to install and maintain. We need to show our elected officials that there is strong demand for these fountains, and convince them to fund this project. That’s where we need your help. If you support this effort, please go to 1000fountains.org/pledge to sign our pledge, follow us on social media, and share this article with your networks.

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We are standing at a pivotal moment in history, one in which education and advocacy around the climate emergency, public health, racial injustice, and economic inequity is imperative. At Earth Island Journal, we have doubled down on our commitment to uplifting stories that often go unheard, to centering the voices of frontline communities, and to always speak truth to power. We are nonprofit publication. We don’t have a paywall because our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.

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