A SFO-branded reusable water bottle.

A SFO-branded reusable water bottle. This is probably a good enough reason to never use a plastic water bottle again. – Photo: AirlineReporter

First off, let’s be clear, I like the environment and want to not only do my part to make sure we have a nice little planet to live on, but also to motivate others. However, the plastic water bottle sales ban at the San Francisco International Airport (SFO), taking effect on August 20th, got me thinking. Do these sorts of changes work as well in a “trapped” world, like an airport? I say that since people in an airport do not have as much choice… they mostly can only pick among the options given to them on the airside (after security).

Over the years, airports have grown the choices airside by leaps and bounds. Heck, many airports are more like shopping malls than an airports. But in the end, you are limited. If your local grocery store decides to no longer sell a product and it is super important to you… cool, just go down the street to the next one. At the airport, that is going to be a bit more of an ordeal.

My paper straw that I got to try while flying through SFO last - Photo: David Parker Brown

My paper straw that I got to try while flying through SFO last time – Photo: David Parker Brown

I will say that I was shocked by some of the numbers. On average, SFO sells about 10,000 plastic water bottles per day, and that equals 3,650,000 per year. No question that is A LOT of plastic and even if they are all recycled (saying they are being recycled), it is not a good thing for the environment. It actually makes me pretty sad so many people do not bring their own reusable bottles (my fiancé brings one for both of us and is always reminding me to hydrate). Conversely, that high number of bottles also shows there is A LOT of demand from people to drink water in plastic bottles. Is it fair to require passengers to use other options?

Sure, sure, getting a reusable plastic bottle is not that much to ask, and the airport is providing some other good options, including water in other packaging (like aluminum and glass). But how expensive will those be and how will that impact a family of four on a fixed budget? Will passengers accept the change? Should there be some line of convenience vs doing what’s right, and is this new policy crossing it? Honestly, I don’t know the answers. But let me share with you some of my thoughts and I hope that we have a good conversation in the comments…

Terminal 3 food court - Photo: SFO

Terminal 3 food court – Photo: SFO

First, here is the official write up from the airport:

Airport tenants, vendors, and permittees may not provide or sell bottled water in containers that contain plastic or aseptic paper packaging, including in vending machines. Reusable water bottles, recyclable aluminum, glass and certified compostable water bottles can instead be provided or sold.

Bottled water is defined as drinking water in a sealed box, bag, can, bottle, or other container intended primarily for single-service use and having a capacity of one liter or less.  Drinking water includes purified water, mineral water, carbonated or sparkling water, and electrolyte-enhanced water.

SFO offers plenty of hydration stations - Image: SFO

SFO offers plenty of hydration stations – Image: SFO

SFO has been making positive strides forward with going green this year, and a big cheers to them. Back in March, they started encouraging vendors to use reusable food service ware, and can only give customers one-use items if they are certified compostable (i.e. made with paper, wood, or bamboo). During my recent flight through SFO, I was able to try out some of these and I will say I am not a huge fan of using a paper straw. I actually rather use no straw vs paper, and I guess that is probably the point! I do not think it is that much of a sacrifice for the greater good and I am guessing that most passengers will not even notice or care.

Approved water options that vendors can use after the ban goes into effect - Image: SFO

Approved water options that vendors can use after the ban goes into effect – Image: SFO

I will say when I was first looking into this, I wasn’t the biggest fan. People are going to notice the change and might care about 10,000 times per day. However, after seeing that SFO is not planning to leave passengers high and dry (man, I love puns), this might not be that bad of a transition and maybe they can pull it off without frustrating too many people. The list above are all the approved water products that vendors can offer — and there are a lot. You will see that they are either made of aluminum or glass. The airport also offers plenty of hydration stations (ie places where you can fill up your own bottle quickly), but hopefully there will be enough with the increased demand. 

Maybe part of my hesitation is just being a grumpy old man saying “get off my lawn” (at the age of 38) and having a hard time with change. I am not trying to be that person. I really hope that this ends up working and makes a positive impact with the reduction of plastic. I just know that flying is a pretty stressful experience for most people (even AvGeeks) and trying to get water shouldn’t add to the stress. At the same time, the vendors will also need to make sure the new options remain cost effective. I was told that if the water bottle change is successful, the airport will be looking to also replace other drinks in plastic bottles like soda, teas, and juices (saying options for those products in different containers improve). I truly hope this transition is a success and can spread to other airports. Until then, I will optimistically watch from the sidelines.

What are your thoughts? Do you think this will make too much of a negative impact for travelers or is this all worth the sacrifice for Mother Earth? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

EDITOR-IN-CHIEF & FOUNDER - SEATTLE, WA. David has written, consulted, and presented on multiple topics relating to airlines and travel since 2008. He has been quoted and written for a number of news organizations, including BBC, CNN, NBC News, Bloomberg, and others. He is passionate about sharing the complexities, the benefits, and the fun stuff of the airline business. Email me: david@airlinereporter.com

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18 Comments

Personally I think that the air travel context is a horrible place to try to make a moral/ethical stand, because of the limitations on what alternatives people can bring from home.

That’s especially true at an airport like SFO where a substantial number of travelers are getting on planes (with unsafe water supplies) for as long as 18-19 hours including ground time.

The critical thing will be that SFO requires vendors to provide alternatives that don’t force travelers to use the hydration stations to fill their water bottles. If they don’t, it will impair the ability of people with compromised immune systems to travel. For those people, the hydration stations are a disaster.

I have no confidence that they’ll get this one right.

JL Johnson

Howdy, David.

Thanks for writing this and for the diverse perspective. I was concerned when I read the headlines when this broke. Sorry to admit that even as a plug-in driving, vegan-ish liberal I sort of assumed (without having the full story) folks would instead head straight for the sugary drinks. But here’s the thing I learned in reading your piece. They allow water in a can! Hey, that’s good enough for me and I think should appease at least some folks. Here’s the best bit- the challenges we face with recycling plastic simply don’t exist for cans because there’s inherent value in the packaging there. Lately, I’ve been traveling with my own cup. And while some airports are good about having water, the vendors sure are strict with the ice. It’s discouraging– I’m an American and tepid water just isn’t for me. There’s the opportunity that I think would really incentivize folks to BYOB, make ice available. Of course, that cuts into revenues…

Philippe

Just wait for the 1st security-relevant incident with glass shards, and plastic will be back. I’d rather bring my own plastic bottle to refill. I often use then several tines anyway. But I live in a country where you can drink tap water. In the US that’s a no go.

Hi David. For me personally I don’t have an issue with the new water policy at SFO I work outside and the best method I’ve found for keeping hydrated is a small steel water bottle carried in my back pocket. It will be in my backpack next trip- SFO policy or not. If, however that policy were in effect in other airport locations; say, India or Mexico, then I would have second thoughts about using their tap water. Which then brings up the question of a foreigner drinking SFO tap water.

Don Fannon

I believe that the reason that the plastic water bottle became so popular was the fact that you could take a sip, then put the cap back on and throw it in your bag. Water in cans and paper certainly don’t have that ability. Who wants to buy a 16 oz can of water and drink it all in one go? I assume that the glass bottles will have twist off caps but boy are those glass bottles ( Like Voss) heavy. Especially for a family to lug around. Hopefully some of the manufacturers will use the Aluminum twist off cans to address the issue.

It’s a good point that Don raises. All those passengers carrying heavier glass bottles onto their flights, contributing to additional fuel burn. Perhaps it’s a small additional mass relative to plastic, but multiplied by 10,000 per day, I wonder if it adds up to additional emissions?

Hopefully they will add more hydration stations… it seems weird to me they would allow sodas to be sold in plastic bottles but not sparkling water. I think some of the airlines have gotten better at offering water outside of the normal beverage service.

Michael Moscartolo

I recently checked into the Hilton at AMS and was handed a black hard plastic reusable water bottle. That was in lieu of the typical complementary bottles of water I usually get. I thought that was a great idea and I use it for travel all the time now. However, it is only as good as the water available to you at the time. Fortunately, Hilton had a selection of cold water stations to fill the water bottles with so that we did not have to use tapwater.

Perhaps, SFO should consider handing out plastic reusable water bottles free of charge (hey, they’re serious about this… put some skin in the game). Have them available at the hydration stations, or at minimum have plastic cups available and these reusable ones for a nominal charge. If other airports catch on, it could be as easy as refilling your water bottle at your next stop.

Just banning plastic, forcing people to go with aluminum or glass, does absolutely nothing for the environment. If you are trying to promote recycling, you can promote recycling with plastic as well as aluminum and glass. I think the aluminum and glass will end up in the trash just as much as any plastic well.

Andrew Dueck

This is epic. I’m ok with trying to keep the environment clean no problem with that!! But…and this is maybe a big BUT… it seems at times that the people making the rules sometimes forget the one part that we need sooooooo much of here, common sense! Why the deadline (“you have to come to my way of thinking in 3 days”…or else… type of thing! that sounds like communism) ? Let’s try one terminal, then see what the feedback is. Also why do the clean countries think they have to do these initiatives? Like us here in Canada, pay carbon tax on fuel when we only produce 3%of global CO2 emissions, its like putting a bandaid on a pin prink on my finger when my whole legs just got cut off!! USA is not even in the top 10 plastic pollution countries!, Let’s focus on transition, maybe start with getting the new system working before we destroy the old. Give people the choice and they may gladly go to alternative systems, make it so economical and easy for a time strapped, cross terminal marathoner to get water that people of there own accord stop using plastic . The best way to get to the clean goal is by making green technology and products so attractive that we quit plastic by ourselves, pushing a cat by the tail just doesn’t work great,! But anyway it will be interesting to see what happens!

Did anyone ever tell SFO they’re an AIRPORT and probably 99% of the people that are buying water bottles are LEAVING SFO (since most, if not all, of
the vendors that sell bottled water are located past security)…
Most of SFO and the city won’t see the debris of approx 3.65 million empty plastic bottles. Those will be discarded in PHX, JFK, PEK, SYD, etc.
Yeah, I get it the plastic epidemic is growing, but some things like this SHOULD NOT be banned.

AttentionAllPassenger

How did anyone ever survive before during the 1960’s, 1970’s without everyone carrying their coveted water bottles ?

AttentionAllPassengers

I survived for decades and still do without carrying a water bottle everywhere.

This water bottle issue really isn’t that big of a deal. The airport has several outlets to get a reusable or recyclable bottle and should not really be that inconvenient even to travelers visiting from other countries. And no matter where the potential 10,000 plastic bottles (per day) end up, I think it’s a good initiative and gets people to start changing their habits for the better.

In the SF Bay Area, many cities have ordinances where stores must charge for plastic bags in order to promote the use of bringing your own reusable bag. Of course, there was the initial outcry but eventually the majority of consumers got used to it and it has become normal now. And there are definitely fewer plastic bags as debris on the streets nowadays.

Steve in Somerville

Saving the environment from plastic pollution is a good idea. This won’t make a difference. 3.6 million plastic bottles a year? That’s 0.0073% of the total number of plastic water bottles used by Americans alone in a single year.

There’s also the small matter of global climate change. Air travel is a huge contributor to global CO2 emissions.

If SFO really wanted to help “save the planet,” they’d close half the runways!

Hey, we’ve gotta start somewhere!

Lee J Bachar

Is it really necessary to carry a water bottle when at the airport? I am sure that if he or she is really thirsty,they should try using a drinking fountain,or wait until you get on the airplane.

Loved reading this blog and you must continue with such a blog!!! Great Work.

Luis Torres

First thing I do when I get through security is to buy two bottles of water for the trip. I drink water flavored with iced tea or lemonade tubes. I can’t do carbonation, I can’t do sugar, and the pickings for sugar free carbonation free drinks are limited. Also, glass bottles are way too heavy. I have had my REUSABLE plastic bottles confiscated by idiot TSA agents more times than I can count, and the thought of filling up a bottle at fountain disgusts me. Have you not seen people put their mouths right on the fountain to not spill any??? It is disgusting – which is to be expected in filthy San Francisco. I will just avoid that airport and fly in and out of Oakland if I had to. Disgusting policy.

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