My friend Marlene teaches eighth grade at the MV Middle School. She recently did a project with her students where they publicized the damage all these plastic water bottles are doing and got a grant for water fountains on campus to fill metal water bottles, or those that are safe.
Her students loved doing it and carrying a disposable plastic bottle on campus is now as much of an ostracism as less than whole wheat bread would have been in the days of my children...
A Fountain on Every Corner
WATER fountain season is here. New York City workers have turned on bubblers in the parks, and the Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson has begun to erect four enormous waterfalls in the harbor, each 90 to 120 feet high, that are scheduled to flow from July to October. The shimmering cascades will cost the city nothing (the $15 million cost is being paid by private donations to the Public Art Fund), but here’s a better idea for a civic-minded organization or person interested in celebrating water: sidewalk fountains in places outside the parks.
Convenience is said to be one of bottled water’s greatest allures: we’re a grab-and-go society, consuming roughly 50 billion bottles of water a year. But as awareness of the product’s economic and environmental impact has escalated, mayors across the nation (although not Michael Bloomberg of New York) have canceled city contracts with bottled water purveyors, citing the expense of hauling away empties (less than 20 percent make it into recycling systems); the vast amounts of oil used in producing, transporting and refrigerating the bottles; and the hypocrisy of spending taxpayer dollars on private water while touting the virtues of public supplies. Last summer, New York City spent $700,000 on a campaign reminding New Yorkers that their tap water is tasty and affordable.
Delivered by gravity, tap water generates virtually no waste. All that, and it contains no calories, caffeine or colorants either. (Yes, New York’s water — like that of other cities — contains trace amounts of drugs, but we lack proof, so far, that exposure at these low levels is a human health risk.)
Bottled water’s main virtue, it seems, is convenience, especially for people at large in the city. As the editor of Beverage Digest told The Times, “It’s not so easy, walking down Third Avenue on a hot day, to get a glass of tap water.”
But it needn’t be so. Paris has its ornate cast-iron Wallace fountains (donated in the late 19th century by a wealthy philanthropist hoping to steer the homeless from alcohol toward a healthier beverage); Rome its ever-running street spigots; Portland, Ore., its delightful four-bowl Benson Bubblers.
In the 1880s, several American cities had “temperance fountains,” paid for by the philanthropist (and dentist) Henry D. Cogswell of San Francisco. New York City had six of these, placed at busy corners: “In the brief space of 10 minutes one morning 40 persons were recently observed to stop for a refreshing drink,” observed an officer of the New York Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor, which helped place the fountains.
Such fountains have largely disappeared (although the temperance fountain in Tompkins Square Park still stands). Today, we’ve got plenty of bubblers in parks, but Midtown is a Sahara for parched pedestrians, who don’t even think of looking for public sources of tap water.
An entire generation of Americans has grown up thinking public faucets equal filth, and the only water fit to drink comes in plastic, factory sealed. It’s time to change that perception with public fountains in the city’s busiest quadrants, pristine bubblers that celebrate the virtues of our public water supply, remind us of our connection to upstate watersheds and reinforce our commitment to clean water for all.
On a more practical note: let’s make them easy to maintain, with water pressure adequate to fill our reusable bottles. And germophobes, relax: city water is chlorinated, and experts report that pathogens impolitely left on spigots by the lips of preceding drinkers don’t creep down into pipes. In other words, the bubbling water is clean, so get over it.
Minneapolis recently committed to spending $500,000 on 10 artist-designed fountains that will be placed in areas of high foot and bike traffic. Mayor Gavin Newsom of San Francisco, archenemy of bottled water, is pursuing a similar plan. New York and other cities should swiftly follow suit, if not with fancy fountains then with several dozen off-the-shelf models. Wheelchair-accessible, and vandal- and frost-resistant, they can be had for less than $2,000 apiece (plumbing not included). It’s a small price to pay to quench thirst, reduce bottle litter, slash our collective carbon footprint and reaffirm our connection with the city’s most valuable resource: its public water supply.
Elizabeth Royte is the author of “Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash” and “Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It.”