Arlington County environmental activists have a message for their neighbors on soccer fields, along bike trails and in office cubicles: Set down the bottled water, and back away.

On the heels of Earth Day on Monday, a group called Tap In Arlington is trying to loosen the area’s grip on the ubiquitous plastic bottles by pointing out that there’s a free source of water at faucets nearly everywhere and that one way to save the Earth is to pack a mug or canteen.

“There’s always an alternative,” said Jay Fisette, Arlington County Board vice chairman and one of the leaders of the initiative. “Before we had plastic bottles, what did we do?”

Tap In Arlington hopes to get at least 10 percent of the county’s 216,000 residents to visit its Web site, www.tapin
, and pledge to not use bottled water.

What bugs the group are single-use plastic bottles, the polyethylene terephthalate containers that take almost 20 million barrels of oil to produce and transport, and are recycled only about 38 percent of the time, according to an industry report. Those unrecycled bottles end up in landfills, waterways and along roads, environmentalists say.

America’s tap water, provided by public water utilities and paid for with taxes, is safe and cheaper both for individuals and the planet, Fisette (D) says. Unlike other areas of the world, where major health problems stem from the lack of clean drinking water, Americans in most areas have few worries, save for an occasional scare, such as the 2004 scandal about lead in the District’s drinking water, or a more recent report about groundwater contamination in California.

Arlington’s drinking water comes from the Washington Aqueduct, and annual reports of drinking water safety are posted on the county’s Web site. For those who don’t like its taste, household water filters are an answer, Fisette said.

“If you look at the impact and consequences of drinking bottled water for the environment, wildlife and your pocketbook or wallet, you’ll drink tap water,” he said.

In fact, almost half of bottled water brands use municipal water in their products, said Chris Hogan of the International Bottled Water Association, and water is challenging soda’s reign as America’s most popular drink, outpacing juice, milk and beer in terms of per-capita consumption, he noted. Some of the biggest food companies in the world peddle it, including Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Nestle. Manufacturers have reduced the amount of plastic used in bottles by half in the past few years, according to the Beverage Marketing Corporation.

Twenty-two private universities and the University of Vermont have banned the sale of bottled water on campuses. In 2009, Arlington government said it would not provide single-serving bottled water for its events, with few exceptions.

Bans such as those worry Hogan, an industry spokesman, who emphasized that commercial vendors are not competing with municipal sources.

“We want people to drink more water, and we want bottled water to be available as a consumer choice,” Hogan said.

Fisette and Tap In Arlington say theirs is a voluntary effort, not a legislative one.

“It’s not about a ban or a law or an ordinance,” Fisette said. “We don’t have the authority, and I don’t have the interest.”