Monday, December 31, 2007

Chicago to Tax Water Bottles

From the Chicago Tribune, December 24th, 2007:

Chicago is set to impose a 5-cent tax on bottled water on Jan. 1, becoming the first major U.S. city to demand such a surcharge. The move -- which officials predict will secure an extra $10.5 million annually -- will help the city plug a budget hole by building on the growing disdain for environmentally suspect bottles.

In the last year, the tide has turned on bottled water, once admired as a healthy alternative to soft drinks. Now, as environmentalists take aim at the clear plastic bottles, politicians can take their own potshots.

Critics of the tax warn it could create a black market for water and spur consumers to shop in neighboring towns where a case of water will cost significantly less. While convenience store or vending machine water may only increase from $1.25 to $1.30 per bottle, the average cost of a 24-pack will go from $3.99 to $5.19, a 30 percent hike.

With 90 percent of bottled water sales consisting of cases sold at supermarkets, retail experts predict the tax will hurt local grocers as customers go outside the city to save money on water. The bottled water industry expects a 50 percent drop in Chicago sales, putting a dent in anticipated revenue from the tax...

Businesses in neighboring communities are preparing themselves for the border crossings...In an effort to promote city tap water -- which consistently earns high marks for its taste and cleanliness -- city officials acknowledge they want to curb the bottled variety's use. Illinois residents consumed 270 million gallons of bottled water in 2005, making it the seventh-biggest bottled water consumer in the United States, according to New York-based Beverage Marketing.

Consumers can avoid the tax by purchasing enhanced or sparkling water such as Perrier, Water Joe, Smart Water or Vitamin Water. The additives, supplements or carbonation in those beverages differentiate themselves enough from kitchen sink variety to evade the surcharge, according to the new law.

"It has to be like tap water [to be subjected to the tax] because that's the alterative you have to plain bottled water," said Ed Walsh, spokesman for the city's Revenue Department. "You can't go to the tap and get flavored water or enhanced water."

Once touted as the gateway to a healthier lifestyle, bottled water has quickly transformed into a symbol of American wastefulness. U.S. sales of bottled water topped 11.9 billion in 2006, a 10 percent increase over the previous year.

Americans drink more bottled water than any other beverage with the exception of carbonated soft drinks, according to the International Bottled Water Association. To meet the demand, the Earth Policy Institute estimates manufacturers use more than 17 million barrels of oil -- enough fuel to run 1 million U.S. cars for a full year -- in making polyethylene terephthalate plastic bottles.

Only 23 percent of those bottles, however, are recycled, according to the Container Recycling Institute. The rest are tossed in to landfills, many of which already grapple with space shortages.

As bottled water consumption nearly doubled over the past five years, conservationists launched an aggressive campaign against the industry..."Bottled water is an easy way to get people involved in protecting the environment," said local activist Rachael Albers, a Lakeview resident who has worked to get bottled water banned from social functions at her church. "Not everyone can buy a Prius or hybrid car. But everyone can stop drinking bottled water."

I always enjoy reading the comments section of articles regarding environmental laws that will impact people's lives in some way. For the most part, the Chicagoans' comments are nuanced and thought-provoking, such as this one from Scott Free: "Recycling" plastic water bottles does not turn them into new plastic water bottles; it turns them into a lower grade of plastic that's used for things like replacing wood in outdoor furniture. New water bottles are still made of petroleum, and all the plastic that went into your water bottle is still there in the environment, waiting for its ultimate disposal. This may take hundreds of thousands of years, until nature evolves a bacterium capable of digesting plastic. Bottom line: recycling these things is a feel-good activity that does little to reduce trash in the environment and nothing to reduce our consumption of oil.

In the end, the tax is likely to be worse for the environment, as people burn more gasoline and emit more pollution driving to the 'burbs to stock up. Of course, it's not about the environment; it's about money. As is everything in Chicago.

Many of the comments bring up the interesting issue of driving out of your way to save a few cents on gas or a product at a store. Are you ultimately saving any money? I guess you'd have to do the math of how much you save on a gallon x the number of gallons/ how many miles you can go on a gallon and compare it to the number of extra miles you have to drive. Just something to think about!

Saturday, December 29, 2007


Well, the month of December was quite busy for me, and I was unable to keep up with the blog for a few weeks. Despite the lack of articles on The Future Earth lately, I have been following many environmental stories in the news, I have gotten some new books to read, and I am brimming with ideas for articles.

Much has been happening in Congress regarding laws that will impact our health and the environment. Since toxic toys and other products have been in the news much lately, voters have been pressuring politicians to do something about it. From the Washington Post, December 20th:

The House passed legislation yesterday that would ban lead from children's products, require toy testing by independent labs, and boost funding for the Consumer Product Safety Commission over the next several years. But the Senate left without taking up that bill or a version passed by a Senate committee in October, making it less likely that toys sold next year will be affected by any regulatory changes. On Tuesday, Congress approved two far more limited measures affecting the agency as part of a larger spending bill. It passed $80 million for the 2008 fiscal year budget for the CPSC and a ban on industry-sponsored travel for commissioners and staff...The bill's sponsors hope to cut a deal with the White House and Senate Republicans by the time Congress returns in late January. Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), who sponsored the Senate bill, said on the floor yesterday that he was "very close to achieving bipartisan compromise to allow this bill to go forward early next year."

Another issue that voters are demanding action on is higher energy standards for vehicles. And not just because of global warming. According toUS News and World Report on December 13th: This fall, Republican pollster Bill McInturff was surprised to find one issue uniting every segment of the U.S. electorate, from solid Republicans focused on national security to Democratic global-thinking environmentalists. All put America's dependence on foreign oil at the top of the political agenda. "An issue essentially not on the radar screen two years ago now cuts across all different segments," McInturff says.

It's a finding in repeated polls, and it goes a long way toward explaining the relentless drive to force automakers for the first time in decades to engineer better gas mileage for their fleets. Although Congress and President Bush remain at odds over energy policy, both say they want to increase the corporate average fuel economy, or CAFE, standard—to 35 miles per gallon by 2020 in the favored Capitol Hill proposal. Meanwhile, in a drama that may play out through President Bush's final days, as many as 17 states, led by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, have vowed to force carmakers to improve mileage even faster.

While battles continue, the carmakers themselves say that the atmosphere is altered and that they support higher standards, even as they work to shape the details in their favor. "Certainly, there have been changes with regard to the cost of gasoline, the political situation in the Middle East, and most importantly, control of Congress," says Charles Territo, spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. It "was more of a question of how the standards would be increased, not whether they'd be increased."

...In October, Democratic pollster Mark Mellman completed a survey for Pew finding that a stunning 87 percent of Americans favored stricter CAFE standards and that voters' views on Congress would improve if this goal were achieved.

McInturff came up with similar findings in his work for Pew and for Ted Turner's United Nations Foundation with Democratic pollster Geoff Garin. "We have the confluence of gas fatigue and Iraq fatigue," says McInturff. "There's no question a majority of Americans think we have gone to war for oil and that it's a huge cause of our engagement in the Middle East. Combine that with $3-a-gallon gasoline."

On December 6th, the House passed the 2007 Energy bill. A week later, the Senate passed a watered-down version of the bill that was signed into law by President Bush on Decmber 19th. Representative Ed Markey explained the bill on the Huffington Post:

Improving Fuel Economy? Yes. 40 percent increase by 2020, from 25 miles per gallon to 35 miles per gallon.
Investing in Renewable Fuels? Yes. Ambitious goals for transition from corn ethanol to climate-friendly cellulosic ethanol.
Renewable Electricity Standard? No, not yet. The Senate failed to overcome objections lodged by Senators from the southeast who believe -- against all evidence to the contrary -- that the South is not a good region for turning the sun into energy.
Lighting and Appliance Efficiency? Yes.
Creating Green Jobs? Yes.
Building Efficiency? Yes. Although incentives for zero-emissions efficient building were cut back, these provisions are still a robust new initiative.
Nuclear Loan Guarantees? Not in the energy bill, although proponents are busy reinforcing the fact that without endless subsidies, nuclear electricity can't survive in a capitalist economy.
Long-term Production Tax Credit for Wind and Solar? No, not yet.
Ending the special tax deduction for Hummers? No, not now. Ouch. When the Senate dropped most tax provisions, this went with it, but it may soon return.

Overall, by 2030, the Energy Bill will reduce the U.S. global warming emissions by nearly a quarter of what's needed to save the planet and will reduce our consumption of oil by more than 4 million barrels per day, which is more than twice the amount of oil we currently import from the Persian Gulf. The strong energy efficiency provisions for our buildings and appliances will make more than 100 coal-fired power plants unnecessary, avoiding massive amounts of heat-trapping pollution. In short, we are making serious progress towards breaking down the barriers to more energy efficiency and reducing our dependence on foreign oil.

I know that getting a bill passed requires compromise , but 35mpg by 2020? My Honda got that mileage in 1994. I am not fooled into thinking this is landmark legislation. We can do better than this!

California proposed its own, more restrictive limits to greenhouse gasses from automobiles, requiring a 30-percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions in new cars and light trucks by 2016, with the first cutbacks starting in 2009. The Clean Air Act allows California to pass its own emmission standards provided that the EPA grants it a waiver. Other states are allowed to adopt the same rules as California. A suit brought by automakers to stop California's stricter regulations was thrown out of court and it appeared that there were no further obstacles. But in a surpise move in mid-December, the EPA refused to grant the waiver.

On December 21st, the LA Times reported The head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ignored his staff's written findings in denying California's request for a waiver...

"California met every criteria . . . on the merits. The same criteria we have used for the last 40 years on all the other waivers," said an EPA staffer. "We told him that. All the briefings we have given him laid out the facts."

PA administrator Stephen L. Johnson announced Wednesday that because President Bush had signed an energy bill raising average fuel economy that there was no need or justification for separate state regulation. He also said that California's request did not meet the legal standard set out in the Clean Air Act.

But his staff, which had worked for months on the waiver decision, concluded just the opposite, the sources said Thursday. The sources spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk with the media or because they feared reprisals...California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has vowed to fight in court to overturn the decision.

Technical and legal staff also concluded that if the waiver were denied, EPA would very likely lose in court to the state, the sources said. But if Johnson granted California the waiver and the auto industry sued, "EPA is almost certain to win," said two sources quoting the briefing document. They advised him to either grant the waiver outright or give California a temporary one for three years.

Instead, three sources said, Johnson cut off any consultation with his technical staff for the last month and made his decision before having them write the formal, legal justification for it. "It's very highly unusual," said one source with close ties to the agency.

"Clearly the White House said, 'We're going to get EPA out of the way and get California out of the way. If you give us this energy bill, then we're done, the deal is done,' " said one staffer....Staff and critics said delay or outright elimination of the federal regulation on vehicles spells possible trouble for regulation of greenhouse gas emissions from other major sources.

"Once EPA makes the . . . finding on vehicles, then it opens the door to standards for smokestack industries as well," said Frank O'Donnell of Clean Air Watch. "That's why the Chamber of Commerce and all the others wrote to the Senate. . . . They weren't doing it because they were worried about fuel economy for cars. The did it because they understand the legal ramifications if EPA moves forward with greenhouse gas standards."

Other news that I have been following includes the 2007 Farm Bill. I hope to write about this subject very soon.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Manufacturers and Retailers Selling Bisphenol A Products React to Consumer and Shareholder Pressure

Perhaps I have been wrong in looking to the government to act on the problem of Bisphenol A. There are signs that the marketplace will ultimately be where action is taken. This week, Mountain Equipment, a large Canadian retailer of hiking and camping supplies, announced that it is pulling all water bottles made from BPA from its shelves.

And according to today's Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, In the past two years, more than two dozen shareholder resolutions have taken publicly held corporations to task for their use of potentially toxic chemicals, according to the Investor Environmental Health Network, a nonprofit for money managers and shareholder groups that use investments to pressure corporations on chemical issues.

Whole Foods Market reacted to the pressure by removing baby bottles containing Bisphenol A from its shelves. Wal-mart has been urging suppliers to inform them of the chemicals used in their products.

According to the Sentinel: Though the chemical resolutions have received little media attention, activist shareholders are convinced that will soon change.

"Have you seen the number of recalls lately?" said Lauren Compere, director of shareholder advocacy at Boston Common Asset Management. "We're saying, 'Deal with this proactively, it's a form of risk management . . . We're talking about risk to your reputation.'"

...Last year almost 45% of Hasbro shareholders backed a resolution that noted the toy giant "sells many toys made out of or packaged in polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic, a substance which has come under scrutiny due to health and environmental concerns." It called on the company to review its policies regarding "social, environmental and economic sustainability," including the PVC issue.

Liroff explained that the softly worded bureaucratic language in the resolutions is required by law. Even with that, he said, corporations are getting the message, noting that the Hasbro vote was the largest one ever cast favoring a chemical resolution. Generally, winning 10% of the vote on a resolution opposed by management is viewed as a victory.

Wayne Charness, a Hasbro spokesman, said the company responded by posting an expanded and "more robust" corporate social responsibility statement on its Web site.

...RiskMetrics Group, a consulting firm that advises large institutional investors such as pension and mutual funds, frequently recommends that its clients support resolutions that would remove potentially dangerous chemicals from products. Last month it expanded its policy so that it will now also typically advise investors in retail operations to favor the motions.

Jim Letsky, RiskMetrics director of governance research and policy, said a company can damage its reputation or face lawsuits if it sells products that are later found to contain toxic chemicals.

"It's not a matter of being altruistic," Letsky said. "It's a matter of being smart in the long term."

As consumers, we can put pressure on retailers too by not buying products laced with bisphenol A, phthalates, styrene, or PVC. Only buy packaged food and drink in glass, paper or plastics labelled 1, 2, 4 and 5. Avoid plastics numbered 3, 6 or 7. Buy stainless steel bottles for drinking water on-the-go such as Klean Kanteen instead of nalgene drinking bottles. Complain to the store if a product you purchase is over-packaged with non-recyclable materials.