BUNDANOON, AUSTRALIA - When the residents of Bundanoon voted last week to stop selling bottled water in town, they never expected to be thrust into the global spotlight.
With a nearly unanimous show of hands at a community meeting on July 8, locals in this tourist town touched off a worldwide debate about the social and environmental effects of bottled water that has put the beverage industry on the defensive.
State and local officials across the United States have been phasing out the use of bottled water at government workplaces in recent years, citing a range of concerns including the energy used to make and transport the bottles and an erosion of public trust in municipal water supplies. But as far as campaigners are aware, Bundanoon is the first town in the world to stop all sales of bottled water.
Set in the cool highlands southwest of Sydney, Bundanoon is a sleepy village of tidy gardens and quaint cottages surrounded by the weekend estates of wealthy urbanites. It is the sort of place where strangers strike up conversations on park benches along the picturesque main street and townsfolk leave fresh flowers on the local war memorial.
According to Huw Kingston, the owner of Ye Olde Bicycle Shoppe and a leader of the "Bundy on Tap" campaign, the ban did not begin as an environmental crusade. It started when a Sydney-based bottling company sought permission to extract millions of liters from the local aquifer.
At first, residents were upset at the prospect of tanker trucks rumbling through their quiet streets. But as opposition grew, Mr. Kingston said many began to question the "bizarre" notion of trucking water some 160 kilometers, or 100 miles, north to a plant in Sydney, only to transport it somewhere else - possibly even back to Bundanoon - for sale.
"We became aware, as a community, of what the bottled water industry was all about," said Mr. Kingston. "So the idea was floated that if we don't want an extraction plant in our town, maybe we shouldn't be selling the end product at all."
A dozen or so activists got together and called a community meeting. Of the 356 locals who turned out to vote by a show of hands, only one objected.
The ban is entirely voluntary. But with the support of the public, the town's six food retailers have agreed to pull bottled water from their shelves starting in September. They plan to recoup their losses by selling inexpensive, reusable bottles that can be filled at drinking fountains and filtered water dispensers to be placed around town.
Some of the town's 2,500 residents say they support the plan because they worry about the effects of chemicals in plastic bottles; some view it as a positive demonstration against the water plant. Others, however, are skeptical that the cash-strapped local council will be able to maintain the new drinking fountains. And others worry about the health implications of leaving only sweetened alternatives on refrigerator shelves.
"I don't see why water should be picked on," said Trevor Fenton, a retired Bundanoon resident. "What I'd like is to see them get rid of all the soft drinks, but they'd never do that."
Environmentalists have been gaining traction in the fight against bottled water. In addition to the new restrictions by state and local governments in the United States, many high-profile restaurateurs have also begun replacing fancy imported water with tap water.
The attention has irked the industry, which is worth around $60 billion a year worldwide and about $400 million a year in Australia. Industry groups say it is unfair to single out bottled water when many other consumer goods - like disposable diapers and imported produce, cheese and wine - have an equal or greater impact on the environment.
In Australia, most bottled water is produced domestically, in recyclable bottles that make up a very small proportion of landfill waste, according to Geoff Parker, the chief executive of the Australasian Bottled Water Institute, which represents giants like Coca-Cola and Schweppes.
"We need to keep the product in perspective," said Mr. Parker. "There are tens of thousands of products in the fast-moving consumer goods sector, and we would suggest that there are a vast number that would have a larger carbon footprint than bottled water."
The issue has touched a nerve. The day of the Bundanoon vote, the state government in New South Wales announced that it would stop buying bottled water, prompting the federal environment minister to urge other states to follow suit. The moves set off a flurry of newspaper editorials over the weekend and set the lines ablaze on talk radio shows across Australia.
The bemused shopkeepers of Bundanoon say they have been swamped with calls from international news outlets and have even been offered a supply of specially branded reusable water bottles from a major European supplier.
Outside his newspaper and magazine store, Peter Stewart said the extra focus on Bundanoon is worth the $1,200 a year he expects to lose on bottled water sales.
"That a group of people can get together over a few months and make headlines all over the world, it's just amazing," he said. "There's a lot of pride in town."