Don’t be a drip: water in Florence

Don’t be a drip: water in Florence

Thu 05 Nov 2009 1:00 AM

I’m not a person who gets easily depressed. In fact, I’m usually annoyingly chirpy. Nonetheless, there are times while researching BeGreenInFlo when I come across something so dismal that even I want to throw myself under one of Florence’s eco buses. I recently attended a green film festival in Sesto Fiorentino and saw Biùtiful Cauntri (2007) and Una Montangna di Balle (2009), Italian documentaries about the ongoing rubbish crisis around Naples. After three hours of gloom, I left the auditorium feeling utterly hopeless and physically sick. There are only so many times you can watch a sheep die of dioxin poisoning.

However, just as I’m on the brink of chucking that oily tuna can into the mixed rubbish and to hell with it all, a light appears at the end of the tunnel. This week I was inspired by another glum documentary called Tapped. It’s about the damage the mineral water industry in the U.S. does to the environment: from mountains of discarded empties to the chemicals that plastic leeches into bottled water and the CO2 emissions caused by transporting it around the country. Statistics closer to home show that if drinking bottled water was an Olympic sport, Italy would beat all other contenders to a gold medal hands down. What is it with Italy and bottled water? There are hundreds of brands, each one purporting to make you slimmer, healthier, younger and more beautiful. You could be forgiven for forgetting that these ads are not for some life-giving elixir, but pretty much the same simple stuff that comes gushing from our taps at one five hundredth of the price. 

But what about the quality of our tap water? Many locals argue that Florentine tap water is filthy and they would never drink it. So I decided to investigate. Florentine tap water comes (gulp) from the Arno and is treated by Publiacqua at their Anconella plant. The water goes through six stages of purification, which I won’t attempt to explain as they include mind boggling words like ‘chiariflocculazione.’ If you’re curious, take a tour of the plant during its annual open house in May. School visits are regularly organised and the plant receives 5,000 visitors annually. Publiacqua told me that the Anconella plant is ‘one of the most advanced of its kind in Europe’ and a detailed analysis on the website shows that the water is pure and drinkable as a mountain spring. Of course, they would say that.

For an objective opinion, I turned to Legambiente,  (the Italian environment agency and ARPAT  Tuscany’s regional environmental protection agency). Legambiente supports the Imbrocchiamola! (‘Fill up a jug’!) campaign, which encourages citizens to drink tap water. The agency has also expressed outrage at an article by Mario Pappagallo in the May 12 Corriere della Sera, which claims that water from one out of every four households is not fit for human consumption. The Italian bottled mineral water consortium, Mineracqua, has used the results from the study behind this article to support its claims concerning the superiority of bottled water.

ARPAT’s December 2008 study of Tuscan tap water, called ‘Acque potabili,’ raises a couple of interesting points. First, the region’s tap water absolutely meets the standards set by the government and is monitored by five different bodies. Second, in 99 percent of cases, the water filters bought to ‘purify’ and soften tap water are useful to reduce the scale in your kettle but are of no benefit whatsoever to the human organism. ARPAT refers to studies that have found that the levels of calcium and magnesium in Tuscany’s tap water actually protect against cardiovascular diseases.

Not everyone wants to spend hours trawling through the Internet to find information like this, however, and in Italy, the practice of drinking bottled water is deeply ingrained. People want more reassurances, and not just from the company who sells us the water. Another problem concerns the pipes and water storage tanks in individual condominiums. The water may arrive at your door perfectly drinkable, but it’s no good if your building doesn’t regularly sanitise the system. Much debate also surrounds the cost of tap water, especially after an Altroconsumo report earlier this month found that Florentine tap water is by far the most expensive in Italy. Of course, it still costs a tiny fraction of the cost of bottled water, and that is definitely something worth smiling about.


There are seven ‘fontanelle‘ or super-pure free drinking water fountains in Florence. They are at Parco dell’Albereta, via Aretina , via dell’Agnolo, Le Piagge, Villa Vogel, via delle Panche and Galluzzo. The water is filtered in such a way as to remove any chlorine taste.

Italy produces 12.4 billion bottles a year, using 655,000 tonnes of petrol and releasing 910, 000 tonnes of CO2. Only a third of the 200 thousand tonnes of polyethylene produced to make these bottles is recycled and 8 out of 10 litres are transported hundreds of kilometres to supermarkets and restaurants.

The Italian mineral water industry includes over 300 brands, employs 8,000 people and is worth 3.5 billion euros. Earlier this year, the small Australian town of Bundanoon became the first place on earth to ban the sale of bottled water. 

The average Italian uses 215 litres of water each day to drink and wash. This number goes up to 6,500 litres with the ‘virtual’ water used to produce what we eat and drink.

To produce one tomato it takes 13 litres of water; one page of A4 paper takes 10 litres and one kilogram of beef takes a staggering 16,000 litres.

One easy way to save water? As actress Cameron Diaz suggested on American TV this year, ‘If it’s yellow, leave it mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down.’ Dramatic, but highly effective.

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