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 bow-wrapped 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 out-pricing 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.
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 pro-fountain 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 that 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.