FLORENCE, Italy — At the sliding-door entrance to COOP, a large supermarket in Florence, the water stand was hard to miss. The buttons for "frizzante" and "naturale" beckoned passersby to bottle some sparkling or flat water, for free. But hurried shoppers stopped, gawked, then quickly turned away from the shed-sized water fountain.
Meanwhile, inside COOP, Florentines lugged six packs of bottled water into their carts.
“I always buy bottled water," said Lisa Marini. "It’s just lighter and tastes better.” The 28-year-old COOP customer was raised on mineral water. “Even if the water from the fountain outside were as good, it would take me too much time to fill up all the bottles I need.”
Italy’s most loyal buyers of bottled water live in Tuscany. So Florence’s water utility, Publiacqua, is trying to re-brand its own product. Publiacqua's new fountains provide Florentines with ultra-filtered water for free. The fountains can deliver about 80 gallons of water an hour and have an internal computer that monitors water quality and output. For the first time, the city is offering public water without a chlorine after taste.
In addition to helping consumers save money, the free water could reduce carbon emissions and reduce trash in a region that takes pride in recycling, experts said.
The eight fountains installed throughout the city pose dilemmas for locals: Should they favor the environment or their palate? Save money or save time?
If Florentines do choose to stand in line to fill up their own bottles, the habit could begin to chip away at the bottled water industry.
“We aren’t starting a war against bottled water companies, but against the prejudice that has berated our public water for years through campaigns and attitudes,”said Erasmo D’Angelis, Publiacqua president, at a recent press conference in Florence.
Publiacqua serves one-third of Tuscany and its Florentine supply comes from the Arno River, which flows through the city. The water goes through cycles of filtration and sanitization before it reaches customers.
But the national association of bottled water companies, Mineracqua, is calling the free water initiative a smear campaign.
“We are victims of what I call hydro-propaganda,” said Mineracqua President Ettore Fortuna. “It’s as if the mineral water sector alone were to be responsible for solving all the environmental problems.”
Along with Italian mineral water's good reputation, Mineracqua has a 21 billion euro industry to protect. Mineral water output in Italy amounts to 12 billion liters each year, and most of it is sold nationally. As a result, Italians are the top consumers of bottled water in Europe, and third in the world.
“I guess for us Italians, drinking bottled water has become a matter of habit and a mindset,” said Irene Manca, a Florence resident shopping for mineral water at COOP. Italians have about 320 labels of bottled water to choose from.
The invention of PET, or polyethylene terephthalate, in the 1980s, allowed many bottled water companies to move from glass to plastic, lowered the overall price of bottled water and sped up production. At the same time, the industry used television advertising to juice consumption in Italy.
In 1980, the average Italian drank about 50 liters of bottled water a year. Thirty years later, that has climbed to 200 liters.
“Besides [carbon dioxide] emissions coming from the trucks that distribute bottled water, the biggest problem for the environment is that the bottles require production of new PET,” said Giorgio Temporelli, a water expert with the environmental foundation AMGA. Because of this plastic material, he said, bottled water is 500 times more expensive than tap water.
Each pound of PET— enough to make 12 bottles—uses two pounds of oil. It also requires an additional six bottles of water to complete the chemical reaction. In the end, the entire process emits two pounds of carbon dioxide.
PET’s carbon footprint grows exponentially when land-bound distribution is factored in.
“PET is a miracle of technology,” said Fortuna, “look at the shapes, the colors … it looks like glass.”
PET is tested at mineral water plants to withstand intense heat for long periods of time. Fortuna says it is the safest container for water.
“The good thing about bottled water,” said Temporelli, “is that over time, Italians have become more interested in what they drink.” This also includes those who are environmentally conscious, he said.
A woman on a bike rode up to the fountain outside COOP and took used wine bottles out of an old burlap sack. Excited about the novelty of free sparkling water, she wedged a bottled under the spout and pressed frizzante.
“This water is delicious, much better than the one from the tap,” said Faimeta Liparini, a Florence resident.
A few COOP shoppers walked by with their six-packs of water, struggling with their purchases like they were carrying heavy suitcases.
“All this plastic has to end up somewhere,” said Liparini. “We all have to do our part.”