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Venice wants people to drink its water. Really.
The city is on a campaign to wean its population off bottled mineral water by promoting tap water, "the mayor's water" as it's affectionately known.
Trash removal in a city of canals, bridges and stairs is a monumental task -- and collecting mountains of plastic bottles is a big part of the burden. Officials say drinking tap is also a way to reduce the city's carbon footprint.
The notion of drinking water from Venice, whose canals are known for their filth almost as much for their beauty, might sound strange.
But Venice, like many Italian cities, gets its water mostly from natural springs. In fact, the ones here are located directly across from those used by a famous water company. Rome, notorious for its pollution, taps ancient aquifers renowned for their purity.
Collectors are deployed in 150 zones of Venice's historic center, sweeping from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m., then piling up push carts with residential garbage -- 2.4 kilograms (5.30 pounds) a day per person, more than double the regional average due to the huge influx of tourists.
Twice a week, the collectors devote rounds exclusively to plastic, so great is the volume that accumulates.
There are signs the initiative is working. In the second half of 2008, as the city was rolling out the campaign, Venice collected 260 tons of plastic waste; that had dropped to 237 tons in the last half of 2009, a reduction of 12 percent.
Meanwhile, the percentage of people who said they always drink tap water jumped 13 points from 2007 to 2009, while those who said they never did dropped 5 points, said Riccardo Seccarello, spokesman for Veritas, an agency that manages both the provincial water supply and trash removal system.
"We are trying to make people understand that our water is good, plus it is sustainable. We don't say, don't ever drink bottled water," Seccarello said.
Italians are among the greatest consumers of bottled water in the world, drinking 194 liters (51 gallons) per capita a year, said Giorgio Temporelli, research director of the environmental foundation AGMA.
Besides producing trash, the plastic bottles produce carbon emissions. More than 2 kilos (4.40 pounds) of CO2 are produced in making 25 bottles of the PET bottles that have been in circulation since the 1990s.
"By encouraging people to drink public water, we save the cost of bottled water and so we benefit the environment because PET is not introduced," Temporelli said.
Italy is home to hundreds of springs and 320 mineral water companies, which bottle 12.5 billion liters a year; all but 1 billion of those are for domestic consumption. Water from the north is trucked south, and water from the south heads north, expanding the carbon footprint, Temporelli said.
Anti-bottled water campaigners say the real scourge is advertising that equates mineral water with health and well-being. They say they are not against mineral water so much as trying to defend tap water from irrational consumer prejudices that it isn't good to drink.
Though quickly adopted by city officials, the idea to reduce bottled water consumption came from Venice's Roman Catholic diocese, which, as part of a wider campaign against rampant consumerism, asked congregations to give up bottled water for Lent two years ago.
"We understood that the family had become passive in the face of all the consumer offers, in the face of all the needs that are constructed by the market," said the Rev. Gianni Fazzini, head of the Venice diocese lifestyle office that gave impetus to the campaign.
"Within this campaign, came the idea of mineral water, as a symbol of a need that was made up, and imposed in a violent way on Italian households," Fazzini said.
The former mayor, Massimo Cacciari, secularized the campaign, and expanded it citywide, putting his face on posters plastered throughout the city urging residents to drink "the mayor's water," which officials branded "Acqua Veritas."
The city also has given away 120,000 glass carafes, which allow of chlorine to evaporate. Chlorine, used to kill bacteria, can leave an unpleasant aftertaste.
It is preparing to hand out thousands of reusable plastic containers for residents on the go. And new posters have just been printed with the new mayor's image.
The tap water initiative is suited to a city where residents can't exactly load up their car to bring home grocery purchases.
"I drink the water from the aqueduct," said Nino Nicoletti, a Venetian in his 70s taking a stroll with his wife Bianca. "We always did except in a certain period when it tasted too much of chlorine. ... Besides, I even have trouble carrying my suitcase now, due to age."
Other cities are following Venice's example. Florence, which gets most of its drinking water from the Arno River, has set up eight fountains through the city to distribute purified water. And Fazzini said dioceses in such major centers as Milan, Turin and Bologna are considering their own tap water program.
Bottled water companies have not been silent in the face of the Venice campaign. Fazzini said both the Vatican and the Venice cardinal were contacted to say the tap water campaign was putting jobs at risk.
But no one told them to stop.
Fulvio Paolocci contributed to this story from Florence.