San Francisco Says Goodbye to Disposable Water Bottles on City Property

After taking many small steps toward its goal of achieving zero waste by 2020, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors took arguably its biggest leap to date last month when it approved a ban on the sale of disposable water bottles on all City property.

SF Supervisor David Chiu (pictured) sponsored the ban on bottled water with fellow Supervisors Eric Mar and Jane Kim, but the idea was first sparked in 2007, when then-Mayor Gavin Newsom issued an executive order forbidding the purchase of bottled water by city agencies.

By Bill Picture

Published: April, 2014

After taking many small steps toward its goal of achieving zero waste by 2020, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors took arguably its biggest leap to date last month when it approved a ban on the sale of disposable water bottles on all City property.

The ban goes into effect on October 1 and is likely to make its biggest impact on large permitted events—where big draws have inevitably meant huge amounts of plastic bottles turning up in the City’s waste stream. "You might say we’d taken care of all the low-hanging fruit," said Guillermo Diaz of the San Francisco Department of the Environment (SF Environment). "The big changes were next, and we felt we were ready."

But why was a ban necessary if the bottles we’ve grown so accustomed to are recyclable? "San Francisco actually does an excellent job of recycling," said Diaz. "But the amount of resources used in the manufacturing process, not to mention in transportation and recycling, are mind-blowing. So the issue isn’t recycling; it’s conserving that energy and those resources."

A few simple statistics—and a quick Google search turns up tons more—demonstrate that, while recycling is important, it’s hardly a panacea when you consider the harm done by the use of disposable plastics:

• The average American consumes 167 single-use bottles of water each year, but only recycles 38 of those bottles.

• Recology reports that it recycles 10-15 million single-use bottles each year, and that doesn’t include the bottles cashed in at redemption centers, or the bottles that end up in landfills because they are disposed of improperly.

• The oil required to make enough plastic to meet America’s demand for bottled water would fuel 1.3 million cars for a year, and that doesn’t include the oil used for transporting bottled water.


Even new habits die hard

So how did San Francisco and the rest of the country get hooked on bottled water? "That’s a good question," said Diaz. "No one seems to know when it started or how it started, and now most people seem to do it strictly out of habit. But here in San Francisco at least, we don’t even need to be drinking bottled water in the first place. The water we get from Hetch Hetchy is some of the best quality and best tasting water in the country."

Thus, what the ordinance’s authors, San Francisco Supervisors David Chiu, Eric Mar and Jane Kim, have set out to do is reprogram an entire city to think outside the bottle when it comes to its drinking water. That might sound daunting to some, but Diaz is confident that it can be done. "There will be a period of adjustment, of course," he said. "But back in the day, we didn’t know if people would use the recycle or compost bins, and they do."

Supervisors Chiu, Mar and Kim didn’t dream up the idea of a ban on bottled water entirely on their own. Their ordinance was inspired by an Executive Order issued in 2007 by then-Mayor Gavin Newsom that prohibited the purchase of bottled water by City agencies, as well as the Port of San Francisco’s 2012 ban on the sale of bottled water at large events held on itst property.

"America’s Cup and big events like that were subject to a similar ban long before the City took a position as a whole," Diaz said. "And no one complained—not organizers and not the public. In a way, we were piloting this for a while. You could say the port’s ban served as a working model for the new ordinance."

In the case of those Port of San Francisco events, the ban on bottled water sales had the added bonus of helping preserve the health of the Bay, as waterfront breezes have a bad habit of picking up anything not nailed down and depositing it in the water. Because plastic doesn’t biodegrade, it breaks down into smaller particles that pollute delicate ecosystems and harm animals, who ingest the plastic thinking it’s food.


Give them water, and they will drink

Ensuring the health and safety of attendees is at the top of any good event organizer’s to-do list. Providing hydration is a must, and not doing so could prove disastrous or even fatal. Faced with a ban on bottled water, the organizers of America’s Cup and other events set up water stations where attendees could refill their own canteens with clean San Francisco tap water pulled from nearby fire hydrants.

To make this possible for other large events moving forward, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission is inventorying hydrants near the City’s most-used properties to make it easier for organizers to access potable water. "When that’s completed, we’ll be able to tell the organizers of an event where the nearest source of potable water is, which we were never able to do before," Diaz said.

"In order to change people’s behavior, we have to make it convenient for them," Diaz said. "We have to make it easier for the event organizers to access potable water, so that it’s easy for the people attending their events as well. Otherwise, they’ll just walk to a store and buy a bottle of water, and we’re back where we started."

While San Francisco’s ban on single-use bottles of water is being praised by environmentalists and the eco-minded, not everyone was jazzed about the prospect of seeing bottled water sales decline in a major U.S. market. "The beverage industry was opposed, as you can imagine," Diaz said.

"They came to hearings and talked about the advancements they’ve made, how there’s now less virgin plastic in bottles and more recycled plastic. And we congratulated them for doing all the right things, but the bottom line is, we don’t need their product. Our water is better."


As of October 1, bottled water will no longer be available for sale at large permitted events on City Property. Eventgoers will instead be able to fill up their personal canteens at water stations like the one pictured, which supply potable water from city fire hydrants.