Yvonne Abraham

A long bottled-up bill

If it wasn’t for those bleeding-heart kumbaya types, the bottled water industry would be loving life right now.

After all, for years they’ve been getting away with selling people environmentally disastrous plastic bottles full of water - much of it the very same stuff consumers get nearly-free from their faucets - at astronomical markups.

Cynics might call this a snake-oil operation, but customers, who bought 9 billion gallons of bottled water last year, clearly disagree. And the customer is always right.


It’s all as American as P.T. Barnum. So will the pesky tree-huggers let the bottlers enjoy their patriotic success?

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Noooooo. Exhibit A: The do-gooders are trying to expand the state’s bottle bill. That’s the 1982 law that put a refundable nickel deposit on drink containers, as a way to persuade people to return empties rather than trash them.

The law keeps 80 percent of those containers out of landfills each year. But it was enacted before sales of bottled water, teas, and sports drinks exploded, and it doesn’t apply to them. Those noncarbonated drinks account for 1.3 billion of the 3.3 billion bottles sold in Massachusetts annually. But less than a quarter of those bottles are recycled. The rest - enough to fill Fenway - go into landfills.

So, for 14 years, agitators have been trying to expand the law to include more beverages. That would keep mountains more plastic out of the landscape and save municipalities $7 million a year in trash costs, says the Sierra Club.

This is an outrage, says the beverage industry, which would have to pick up some of the extra recycling costs. This is a tax, say some legislators, who are terrified of the bottlers and voters, who they fear will take up pitchforks if their Aquafina costs a few refundable pennies more.


So every year, the bottle bill dies at the State House, never making it to a vote.

But advocates hope this year will be different. A January poll found 77 percent of voters support the expansion. And 204 cities and towns have passed resolutions endorsing it. House Speaker Robert DeLeo still doesn’t like the bill (smells like tax, he says), but he told WBZ-TV’s Jon Keller something intriguing earlier this year. “We’ll debate it,’’ he said.

To Janet Domenitz, executive director of the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group, this meant DeLeo would allow the bill to make it to the House floor.

“I think we have reason to be optimistic,’’ she said.

I thought so too, but when I called DeLeo’s spokesman Seth Gitell last week, he was unequivocally noncommittal, refusing to say whether the bill would make it to the chamber.


“The bill is currently in committee,’’ Gitell said, where legislators are “looking at a variety of issues surrounding it.’’

I have a hunch the bottlers are safe on Beacon Hill.

But the bottle bill isn’t their only problem. Here comes Exhibit B, a Boston-based outfit called Corporate Accountability International. For a few years now, it has been trying to persuade us to drink tap instead of bottled, and has had some success in slowing bottled water sales.

Now these agitators are giving big water grief for trying to expand sales among minority consumers by preying on their fears about water safety. This clever gambit seems to be working: One recent study activists cite shows that minority parents are three times more likely than white parents to choose bottled water for their children. Twelve percent of African-Americans surveyed and 14 percent of Latino, say they give up other things in order to buy bottled water.

So what if Boston boasts one of the best water supplies in the country? Thanks to the bottlers’ tireless efforts, the market has spoken. And all that gorgeous plastic will keep going from today’s lips to tomorrow’s landfills.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at