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Water Quality Products Managing Editor Rebecca Wilhelm recently spoke to Dan Felton, vice president of government relations for the International Bottled Water Assn. (IBWA), about the regulatory and legislative challenges facing the bottled water industry.
Wilhelm: What are the main challenges facing the bottled water industry?
Felton: At the state level, our primary challenges have been about packaging and taxes. In terms of packaging, we are primarily talking about the recycling of our containers, but to some extent, also the makeup of those containers. There are many misconceptions about our packaging that we have found difficult to overcome.
We are criticized for our containers not being recycled adequately, or at all. In reality, our containers are 100% recyclable, and our recycling rates have climbed significantly. The recycling rate for plastic water bottles in 2008 was 30.9%—up 32% from the year before—and those bottles are now the most common item found in curbside
We also get hit on the use of oil to produce plastic water bottles—another misconception. The raw material used to manufacture polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottled water containers is actually a byproduct of oil refining, so eliminating bottled water PET containers will not really reduce oil consumption at all. Over the past eight years, the gram weight of a 16.9-oz single-serve bottled water container has dropped by 32.6% as the industry has worked to light-weight containers and use less raw materials.
Another issue for our packaging has been the use of Bisphenol A (BPA) in our 3- and 5-gal water cooler bottles. While the Food and Drug Administration continues to maintain that BPA may be used safely in food-contact materials, it has come under intense attack during the past couple of years. While the vote is still out on what will happen with BPA at the federal level, the bottled water industry continues to get inadvertently caught in the crosshairs of this debate at the state level as seven states have now enacted some sort of BPA restriction. These types of restrictions could be devastating for the bottled water industry, as alternatives to BPA for our products are very limited and cost-prohibitive at this point.
As far as taxes, we have become a popular target for states trying to find ways to address growing budget deficits. Whether it be mandatory deposit programs or sales and excise taxes, officials are looking toward us and our products to help fill their coffers. The tax debate may pick up at the federal level in the future as Congress is struggling to find ways to fund water infrastructure maintenance and improvements. A tax on water-based beverages, including bottled water, has been offered as one possible solution.
Wilhelm: Last year, it seemed there was a rush for municipalities, school districts, etc., to “ban” bottled water. Has the regulatory environment for bottled water improved?
Felton: 2007 and 2008 were very rough years as several municipalities enacted measures to restrict the use of government funds to purchase bottled water. This trend seemed to taper off in 2009, but then seems to have picked up again recently. Last year some of our adversaries shifted their attention on bottled water “bans” from cities to states, and we saw four governors (Colorado, Illinois, New York and Virginia) take action in this regard. However, we were very pleased this past June when Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell overturned his predecessor’s attack against us. It is my belief that the primary force behind these actions against us is a misconception that the bottled water industry is somehow diluting the public’s confidence in tap water as municipalities may be struggling to find justification for raising extraordinarily low water rates. Some want to make this a debate about tap versus bottled water, and we just do not see that. They are both highly regulated, and both serve high and meaningful purposes in their own rights.
Wilhelm: How does the IBWA help shape regulations and legislation that both satisfy the industry and help allay public concern?
Felton: We work very hard with our members, legislators and administrators to enact sound laws, rules and regulations that are based on sound science and economics and which are equitable to all involved. I can point to numerous instances where IBWA has been the voice of reason in satisfying the expectations of both our industry and those who need or want to regulate us. I always remind people that we are a packaged food product, and for that fact alone our industry is willing and able to meet the highest level of standards.
Wilhelm: What regulatory challenges do you foresee for the bottled water industry?
Felton: In addition to packaging and tax challenges, I believe that we will continue to see a growing debate about the bottled water industry’s use in groundwater throughout the U.S. as it pertains to local control over resources, as well as whether or not groundwater should be declared to be in the “public trust.” Furthermore, I believe there will be a continued push for mandates on the disclosure of bottled water quality information to consumers—something our industry already does aggressively on a voluntary basis