Flint water crisis: Companies, community groups work to reduce plastic waste as residents rely heavily on bottled water

By Adriana Navarro, AccuWeather staff writer
July 27, 2018, 2:07:30 PM EDT

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Flint, Michigan, citizens believe that the water crisis still isn't over. Despite the state government telling the citizens that the water is now clean, and the copper-lead tests supposedly backing them, many people are hesitant to trust the officials again in their claims of clean tap water.

With the reliance on water bottles amid distrust in tap water brings up the concern of all of the plastic bottles.

Flint

The Flint Water Plant tower is seen, Friday, Feb. 26, 2016 in Flint, Mich. Flint is under a public health emergency after its drinking water became tainted when the city switched from the Detroit system and began drawing from the Flint River in April 2014 to save money. The city was under state management at the time. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)


"You would think that there would be recycling bins all over the city, but there's not," Flint activist Gina Luster said.

Flint had dropped its recycling services in 2001 due to budget cuts.

Terraca Keels, a resident of Flint, said in the time following the cut, there was no recycling. They threw everything in the trash.

Flint In 2013 the emergency manager at the time, Ed Kurtz outsource the waste collection of the city to Republic Services. The company not only took over the waste collection, but it provided recycling services for the city about a year before the Flint water crisis hit and the amount of plastic bottles soared.

Unfortunately, not many people would start off using the new recycling program.

"You would ride through the city and just see water bottles everywhere," Luster said.

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But on April 6, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder declared Michigan would no longer be providing free bottled water to the city after the current supplies ran out. Flint Mayor Karen Weaver asked for state-funded bottled water at least until all of the pipes were replaced, but the governor denied her request.

With the halting of state-funded water, the citizens are trying to get a hold of what donations they can.

"It's been an unusually hot summer, and it's really sad that you see people begging because they've gotten so attached to water bottles. They're literally begging for it," Luster said.

She described people from Flint as having Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from the crisis, hesitant to trust the tap water and the officials who tell them it's safe to drink.

Flint water bottles

Hundreds of cases of bottled water are stored at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, Friday, Feb. 5, 2016 in Flint, Mich. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder is defending how his office responded to an email flagging a potential link between a surge in Legionnaires' disease and Flint's water. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)


Why Flint is still relying on bottled water

The first time officials had initially told the citizens that the water was safe to drink, the residents also had their doubts.

At the beginning of the crisis, Luster continued to drink the water for a year, having been told that she didn't have Flint pipes.

"I'm an ice-chewer as well, and the water started tasting like it had medicine in it. You could literally taste that there was medicine or some chemical in it," Luster said, even saying it was as if the water had "kitchen cleaner" in it."

For Keels, the first signs at her house were how the water looked.

"It actually looked how the Flint River looks: nasty, dark and fishy," Keels said. Following the odd appearance of the water, her children began getting rashes. She had been told that it could have been eczema.

Then, officials announced that the water was contaminated.

Luster described the smell that came from the water in their homes.

"It smelled like raw sewage," Luster said, but it wasn't just the smell of the water that had, and still has, citizens concerned.

"Still today, it will be clear and have a bad smell," Luster said. She described the water changing from a "greenish army color" at one faucet but clear at a different one.

"You never knew from day to day what color, what smell you were going to get," Luster said.

According to Luster, the city is changing the pipes, though there hasn't been much progress with it. Keels said she has yet to see the pipes being changed. Besides all of that, she said the water treatment plant was also outdated.

Luster estimated it would take another five years before all of the pipes were changed out.

It isn't just the lead levels that have people in Flint concerned about the water quality.

"A lot of people are still coming back with high-lead levels, high bacteria levels," Luster said.

Bacteria levels are another concern in Flint, especially after the Legionnaires' disease outbreaks from 2014-2015 that infected 90 people and killed 12. But a recent report from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services suggests the outbreak was from a common exposure at McLaren Flint Hospital. The hospital issued a statement in response.

A Michigan government document explains that Legionnaires' disease is more common in the summer and fall since the bacteria grows in warm stagnant water. However, anyone can catch the disease any other time of the year as well.

Both Luster and Keels doubt that they'll ever trust the water of Flint again. Even with the water filters, Luster calls them a "Band Aid."

And so, the residents cling to water delivered in the plastic bottles because without them, as Luster said, "They are exposed to the water."

The price of water

There are people who don't fully rely on water bottles, but according to Luster, it isn't based on trust so much as the lack of access to the donated waters or having enough money to buy more thorough filters.

"I just believe that with (the water contamination) it was more of a class issue than race because it wasn’t just my own folk poisoned," Luster said. "It affected what neighborhood you lived in, if you were able to afford to get out or if you were able to afford to get a $5,000 house filtration system."

Luster also noted that emergency managers are typically sent to communities with a significant minority population.

According to the US Census, 54.3 percent of Flint's residents are black or African American alone, and 41.9 percent of the population of Flint lives in poverty.

In 1990, Michigan became "authorized to intervene in the unites of local government that experience financial emergencies." Other states also have laws that allow the state government to have oversight over a local one.

"The emergency managers came in and made the decision for us," Luster said, referring to the switch from the Detroit water to the Flint River in an effort to save money. Luster added that she felt people in the community didn't have a choice in the decision.

Out of the 11 cities in Michigan which have had emergency managers, only three have had a white majority population. Wayne County, also having been under an emergency manager, has a majority African American population.

The townships of Royal Oak and Three Oaks also had emergency managers.

Companies such as Nestle are still donating water in the vacuum left behind for bottled water, though there are some mixed feelings in Flint about the company.

"I appreciate everyone that donated the water to help out," Keels said. At the time of her interview, she had about 15 cases of 24 bottles of water in her house. For her family, that amount can last them about two or three days.

Luster and other activists estimated it costs about $150 a month to buy water bottles for a household of just two people assuming that the average household goes through between 20 to 30 cases of water a week.

In April, Flint protesters made the two-hour car ride to the Nestle Ice Mountain bottling facility to protest the new permit as well as the low cost of an annual $200 the company would pay to Michigan. Flint residents are not only frustrated about this, but also the expensive water bills for water that they don't even trust to use.

A national study published in 2016 shows that in January 2015, the average annual water bill in Flint, Michigan, was a little over $900. The following August a judge ruled that certain rate increases were unlawful.

However, when water bill credits ended, Flint continues to have high water bills for water many residents don't trust.

Efforts to cut back on plastic

Companies that sell bottled water such as Nestle and Coca-Cola came to Flint's aid starting in 2015, contributing to the amount of water donated.

After the officials declared the tap water safe to drink, Nestle representative Jason Manshum said the company's partners in Flint prompted them to continue providing water in a new effort that started mid-May and will continue to Labor Day.

"They said the best way to meet the needs of the community this summer is to provide water at these help centers when it’s needed the most because of the high temperatures, higher humidity, etc. So that’s what we’ve been doing." Manshum said.

Manshum estimates Nestle sends about 33,000 bottles worth of water to Flint three times a week, providing about 100,000 bottles worth of water each week until Labor Day.

Nestle has also taken efforts to not just send water, but to manage the result of more plastic waste in the community.

"It's important for people to understand we recognize when you're providing an abundance of bottled water for a community, you're also providing additional plastic," Manshum said.

Recently, Nestle has started using a "hydration station" in Flint. The 20-foot-long enclosed trailer houses 5 gallon jugs of water. Outside of the trailer are two spigots from which residents can collect water using their own bottles.

Nestle has partnered with Keep America Beautiful and the local Keep Genesee County Beautiful to "establish a recycling infrastructure" and an awareness program in the Flint public schools on recycling according to Manshum.

Keep Genesee County Beautiful has a page specifically for Flint. According to the page, the water points of distribution have stopped collecting the used plastic bottles for recycling. However, there are alternative and free drop-off sites for people who aren't in curbside recycling programs.

KGCB and Keep America Beautiful have also encouraged schools to collect recycling in a competition encouraged by funding, and Luster has seen schools encouraging art projects made from the recyclables as well.

The people of Flint are also holding recycling events and finding creative uses for the bottles from creating glasses out of the recycled plastic to outfits.

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