Wean­ing off the wa­ter bot­tle

Berlin’s mayor wants res­i­dents to opt for one of the city’s 150 pub­lic drink­ing foun­tains

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY LUISA BECK luisa.beck@wash­post.com

BERLIN — When Ger­mans are out and about, their wa­ter go-to is usu­ally a bot­tle. But on a steam­ing late-sum­mer af­ter­noon in the na­tion’s cap­i­tal, Berlin Mayor Michael Müller set out to con­vert them to the tap.

“It’s al­ways avail­able — and an en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly choice be­cause it avoids the pro­duc­tion of plas­tic and trans­port costs,” he told a small crowd of per­spir­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tivists, pho­tog­ra­phers and city em­ploy­ees.

Müller, 53, leaned over a bowwrapped drink­ing foun­tain, filled a wine­glass with wa­ter and pro­posed a toast to the fix­ture, an amenity long taken for granted in Amer­i­can cities but a quasi-revo­lu­tion­ary no­tion in Ger­many.

Pub­lic drink­ing foun­tains are sur­pris­ingly rare in this coun­try that prides it­self on en­vi­ron­men­tal­ism, in­no­va­tion and uni­ver­sal ac­cess to ba­sic ne­ces­si­ties. But Müller and his col­leagues hope to change that, set­ting an eco-friendly ex­am­ple for other Ger­man cities by adding 100 new foun­tains to the roughly 50 al­ready in the cap­i­tal.

It’s a hard pitch. Ger­mans are among the world’s top five con­sumers of bot­tled wa­ter and the No. 1 drinkers of the fizzy kind. And that is de­spite the down­sides: Bot­tled wa­ter, whether in plas­tic or glass, is ex­pen­sive, of­ten out­pric­ing beer, cof­fee and milk; heavy (big­ger quan­ti­ties are dis­counted); and a has­sle to dis­pose of, given Ger­many’s no­to­ri­ously rigid re­cy­cling rules.

Pub­lic drink­ing foun­tains have not tra­di­tion­ally been an op­tion here. Even with 150 of them in op­er­a­tion, Berlin will hardly have enough for its nearly 4 mil­lion res­i­dents, although it will be far ahead of Ham­burg, which has six, Cologne, which has three, and Mu­nich, with none.

New York City, by con­trast, has roughly 3,100 foun­tains for its 8.6 mil­lion peo­ple, Vi­enna has 980, and Paris has 974 (in­clud­ing some with sparkling wa­ter).

Asked why the thrifty, prag­matic Ger­mans have been so slow to adopt an ob­vi­ous pub­lic good, Müller shrugged.

“It’s not ra­tio­nal,” he said. “Maybe it’s be­cause there’s no beer flowing out of the faucets.”

Iron­i­cally, Berlin is catch­ing drink­ing-foun­tain fever at pre­cisely the mo­ment when they are fall­ing into dis­use in the United States, vic­tims of poor main­te­nance and the surg­ing bot­tled-wa­ter mar­ket. In some cities, in­clud­ing San Fran­cisco, At­lanta and Chicago, bot­tle-fill­ing sta­tions have be­come a pop­u­lar eco-friendly suc­ces­sor.

En­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tivists and politi­cians world­wide have long pushed cities to in­crease pub­lic ac­cess to potable tap wa­ter. Ear­lier this year, Frans Tim­mer­mans, vice pres­i­dent of the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion, told mem­ber states they should take such ac­tion to im­prove pub­lic health and to lower their car­bon diox­ide foot­prints.

The man­u­fac­tur­ing and trans­porta­tion of bil­lions of bot­tles a day con­trib­utes to car­bon diox­ide emis­sions and global cli­mate change, ac­cord­ing to sci­en­tists. And de­spite ex­ten­sive re­cy­cling ef­forts by coun­tries like Ger­many and Swe­den, most of the stag­ger­ing 1 mil­lion plas­tic bot­tles bought world­wide ev­ery minute end up in land­fills or the ocean. Re­searchers es­ti­mate that by 2050, the ocean will con­tain more plas­tic by weight than fish, and some warn it’s mak­ing its way into the hu­man food chain.

In Berlin, how­ever, those pro­foun­tain ar­gu­ments may not suf­fice.

“What if some­one spit in it at 4 a.m.?” said Ka­trin Strohmeier, a 31-year old project man­ager who has lived in Berlin for about 10 years. She wouldn’t think of us­ing a pub­lic wa­ter foun­tain, she said, mostly be­cause “I don’t trust peo­ple not to be gross.”

The foun­tains are cleaned ev­ery two weeks, and their wa­ter is tested monthly, ac­cord­ing to Berlin’s Wa­ter Works. Although few stud­ies on wa­ter foun­tains ex­ist in Ger­many, U.S. sci­en­tists have found they are gen­er­ally safe, as long as they are main­tained and the wa­ter is mon­i­tored.

The lat­ter is cer­tainly the case in Ger­many, ac­cord­ing to hy­drol­o­gist Michael Sch­nei­der, of the Free Univer­sity of Berlin. “The pub­lic wa­ter sup­ply is su­per­vised many times per year with a huge list of pa­ram­e­ters,” he said.

Hy­giene con­cerns aside, Müller has an­other, po­ten­tially even big­ger op­po­nent to con­tend with: Ger­many’s long love af­fair with min­eral-packed fizzy wa­ter.

“In Ger­man his­tory, bot­tled sparkling wa­ter came first, be­fore tap wa­ter,” said Veronika Set­tele, a his­to­rian at the Free Univer­sity of Berlin who stud­ies the his­tory of food and drink.

In the 17th and 18th cen­turies, the coun­try’s aris­to­cratic elite trav­eled to nat­u­ral springs in places like Gerol­stein, in the Rhineland, for “drink­ing cures.” In the 19th cen­tury, vis­i­tors filled jugs with spring wa­ter to take back to their homes across the coun­try. Even­tu­ally, com­pa­nies in­clud­ing Gerol­steiner — still Ger­many’s top min­eral-wa­ter sup­plier — grew up around the springs, com­mer­cial­iz­ing the pro­vi­sion of drink­ing wa­ter be­fore tap was safe.

“Around the 1900s, it was for sure a bet­ter idea to buy bot­tled wa­ter over drink­ing tap,” Set­tele said. For the vast ma­jor­ity of Ger­mans who couldn’t af­ford the ex­pen­sive bot­tles, the best al­ter­na­tives were a malt-based cof­fee sub­sti­tute or beer.

Even to­day, Ger­mans drink on av­er­age two to three liters of the nat­u­rally car­bon­ated spring wa­ter a week, although it’s an ac­quired taste for some for­eign­ers.

“I can’t drink Gerol­steiner. It’s just too much,” said Charles Fish­man, an Amer­i­can jour­nal­ist who has writ­ten on wa­ter con­sump­tion and pref­er­ences in his book “The Big Thirst.” “The bub­bles ac­tu­ally add a lit­tle bit of bite to the wa­ter.”

Berlin’s foun­tains won’t squirt sparkling wa­ter. Or beer. But at least the tourists don’t seem to mind. On the day of the mayor’s an­nounce­ment, they crowded around a gleam­ing blue foun­tain at Check­point Char­lie along with some of the city’s home­less res­i­dents. Some sim­ply took a sip. Oth­ers took their empty plas­tic bot­tles and rather than toss­ing them, filled them up.


A vis­i­tor from Italy fills a bot­tle with wa­ter from one of Berlin's pub­lic drink­ing foun­tains at Check­point Char­lie. While drink­ing tap wa­ter is com­mon in some coun­tries like the United States, in Ger­many and other Euro­pean coun­tries, the eco-friendly ef­fort is not as typ­i­cal.


Berlin Mayor Michael Müeller and Jo­erg Si­mon, chair­man of the city wa­ter util­ity, sam­ple wa­ter from one of the new foun­tains.

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