The Scientific Activist

It’s Time to Get Off the Bottle!

Via Deep Sea News, I came across a story from Tuesday’s LA Times about recent corporate and fashion-industry efforts to ween Americans off of bottled water. With Americans currently throwing away 38 billion plastic water bottles each year (that’s over 100 bottles per American!), it’s a cause that can’t be emphasized enough. Bottled water is wasteful. Period.

Still, I find parts of the article somewhat tiresome, especially the title: “On the anti-bottled-water bandwagon: Filter and container makers are capitalizing on the latest green trend.” Although this is mostly this is mostly just a framing issue, I’m not too excited about calling the water bottlers “green” for a token eco-friendly effort when they are the ones producing and profiting from bottled water. In addition, whether or not there really is a trend here, it’s dwarfed by Americans’ continued and unnecessary use of bottled water.

The article takes on a fairly credulous tone in all of this. For example:

Sigg rival Nalgene would no doubt beg to differ, and certainly Brita would add that the water should be strained through one of its charcoal filters.

The Brita-Nalgene website launched Monday, www.filterforgood.com, makes several key claims for the green-minded, including that one Brita pitcher filter (a four-pack sells at Target for less than $20) can replace as many as 300 plastic bottles “so you can get great-tasting water without so much waste. Talk about refreshing.”

On the site, people can pledge to reduce their throwaway-bottle consumption. And until Dec. 31 they can buy a FilterForGood refillable bottle (made by Nalgene, of course) for $10, with a donation of as much as $4 made to the Blue Planet Run Foundation, a nonprofit working to provide safe drinking water to 200 million people by 2027.

That’s all well and good, and I appreciate Brita’s efforts (regardless of the fact that they’re motivated by making money), but nowhere is it noted that there’s no need for those in the developed world to filter one’s water either. It’s statements like these, which subtly cast doubt on the quality of tap water, that have contributed so much to our current wasteful bottled water culture. Tap water, which has possibly become our most unappreciated modern marvel, is safe and of high quality (and often of higher quality than bottled water, as Deep Sea News points out).

In response to this culture, The New York Times ran an excellent editorial on August 1st entitled “In Praise of Tap Water”, which makes the case for tap water in terms of cost to the consumer…

Meanwhile, if you choose to get your recommended eight glasses a day from bottled water, you could spend up to $1,400 annually. The same amount of tap water would cost about 49 cents.

…in terms of cost to the environment…

The Earth Policy Institute in Washington has estimated that it takes about 1.5 million barrels of oil to make the water bottles Americans use each year. That could fuel 100,000 cars a year instead. And, only about 23 percent of those bottles are recycled, in part because water bottles are often not included in local redemption plans that accept beer and soda cans. Add in the substantial amount of fuel used in transporting water, which is extremely heavy, and the impact on the environment is anything but refreshing.

…and even in terms of subtler societal implications:

The more the wealthy opt out of drinking tap water, the less political support there will be for investing in maintaining America’s public water supply. That would be a serious loss. Access to cheap, clean water is basic to the nation’s health.

In America, at least, tap water is virtually free. Only about 2% of the water used by an average American household is is used for drinking or cooking. The other 98% goes to a variety of other uses, particularly bathing, flushing toilets, and watering lawns. Even if nobody ever bought another bottle of water again, our municipal water systems wouldn’t even be fazed.

Over 1 billion people still don’t have access to safe drinking water, yet our perspective in America has become so warped that we’ve come to believe that having this precious resource available with just a slight motion of the wrist isn’t good enough.

Although these corporate efforts are good, it’s up us individuals to wake up, take responsibility, and stop this strange regression back to pre-Twentieth Century, pre-running water days. It won’t be hard: the solution is already at your fingertips.


Update: Effect Measure also has a nice post on the issue.

Comments

  1. #1 joltvolta
    August 16, 2007

    –”Tap water, which has possibly become our most unappreciated modern marvel, is safe and of high quality (and often of higher quality than bottled water, as Deep Sea News points out).”–

    Safe and of high quality? You should try the stuff in Phoenix, AZ. Yuck!

    I realized how many bottles I was going through when I started collecting empty “disposable” water bottles in the back seat of my car. It didn’t take long to realize how many I was actually going through, and the abundance of waste it was creating. I’m guilty of using vending machines for a small source of water at work, as tap is so awful in Arizona. On the other hand, I get most of my water source from buying water filtered, in bulk, at a local Ice & Water store. I did it for the money though. =( But feel much better not throwing away tons of plastic every month.

    – jolt

  2. #2 J. Gabler
    August 16, 2007

    I’ve always been very pro-tap water, but I must point out that not all developed-world tap water is safe. Where my grandparents used to live, women in their first trimester would miscarry if they drank unfiltered tap water (this is not anecdotal by the way, the city issued an official warning on the matter). On a more anecdotal note, drinking the water at their house made me thirsty.

  3. #3 Chad Orzel
    August 16, 2007

    You’re making a slight mistake in assuming that people drink bottled water, and filter tap water, because of safety concerns. I’m sure there are people who think their tap water isn’t safe to drink, but there are also a lot of us who just don’t like the taste.

    I was born and raised out in the sticks, and grew up drinking water from a well. As a result, the tap water in basically any city in America tastes terrible to me. I have a Brita filter on the tap here not because I’m worried about safety, but because it makes the water taste slightly less like it was siphoned out of a public swimming pool.

    I started drinking bottled water because I had stomach problems and was advised to avoid tea and soda, which is what I drank before the stomach issues. The net change in plastic consumption were I to swear off bottled water would be pretty minimal– I’d switch back to drinking soda or Gatorade or some such, rather than drinking tap water.

  4. #4 cephyn
    August 16, 2007

    I filter my tap water in a brita. It tastes really metallic to me. And sometimes I’m thirstier after I drink it. The brita solves that. Does the brita filter out fluoride? I hope not. But the water where I went to college (Santa Barbara, CA) tasted and even smelled bad. That was a must-brita.

  5. #5 John Wilkins
    August 17, 2007

    Not “phased”, “fazed”. One of my triggers…

  6. #6 isinmaya hayir
    August 17, 2007

    –”Tap water, which has possibly become our most unappreciated modern marvel, is safe and of high quality (and often of higher quality than bottled water, as Deep Sea News points out

  7. #7 Nick Anthis
    August 17, 2007

    Good catch, John. I fixed it. I guess I’ve just been phasing too many NMR spectra lately….

  8. #8 Luis
    August 17, 2007

    Great post!

    If the economics don’t work, recycling efforts won’t either.
    As our little contribution to make this economics of recycling more appealing, http://LivePaths.com blogs about people and companies that make money selling recycled or reused items, provide green services or help us reduce our dependency on non renewable resources.

  9. #9 Qalmlea
    August 17, 2007

    If you’ve ever, EVER driven across the interstate in Wyoming and gotten water from one of their taps, you will understand why people filter. It tastes like sulfur. Yech.

    I tend to buy a set of bottled water and then keep the bottles and refill them from my filtered tap until they’re no longer usable (usually 3-6 months), then take them to be recycled. If I could find a permanent, washable water bottle that didn’t make the water taste horrible, I would probably stop buying even that many.

  10. #10 Trinifar
    August 18, 2007

    I think the recent attention to the absurdity of bottling water, branding it, selling it for a relatively high price is good. As you note there is this alternative everywhere called tap water — and as commenters noted, tap water can be filtered quite economically.

    However, you’re pushing a very subversive idea, a real wedge issue that will lead us down a slippery slope. Once people stop buying branded, packaged water, the next thing you know they might reconsider the purchase of a new car with a 5.0 liter engine, or chose a 1500 sq ft house rather than a 4000 sq ft one, or not buy that vacation house, or start eating less meat, …. The possibilities are endless and horrifying. What if we actually end up changing the whole economy!

    Have a heart, think of the hedge fund managers.

  11. #11 tony
    August 18, 2007

    Our tap water, (surburban upstate NY) is potable but not terribly clean or tasty. I’d rather not drink it, but I don’t like the environmental costs of bottled water either. (We use 5 gal refillable bottles from among the usual providers.) So how about five cent per bottle tax earmarked to municipal water improvement?

  12. #12 Mimi
    August 18, 2007

    For a cost of about $70 a year we filter all our tap water, including the water that makes our ice and comes out of our fridge. All my children have inexpensive water bottles which last from a week to a year. My husband and I drink tea but our four children drink mostly just water.

    Mimi

  13. #13 Ellen
    August 19, 2007

    At least water is benign in terms of health impacts. Why not take on the REAL evil – SODA? That has all the evils of bottled water (oil makes plastic: energy to make plastic, cans; energy to drag it around the world) and what do you get?
    Empty calories and high fructose corn syrup (helping to support the outrageous growth of the highly-subsidized corn industry and the destruction of what little prairie habitat we have left).

    Of course, if you succeed in shutting down the SODA market, you will cause havoc in the U.S. economy.

    To me, SODA is nearly as evil as cigarettes.

  14. #14 Nick Anthis
    August 19, 2007

    I think it probably works the other way, with our agricultural subsidy policies encouraging the cheap production of high fructose corn syrup, further lowering the price of soft drinks. Cutting off the corn subsidies would be the first point of action if the government really wanted to tackle this problem.

  15. #15 Trinifar
    August 19, 2007

    Don’t forget too it’s oil in the form of artificial frertilizer that makes all that high fructose corn syrup possible.

  16. #16 Trinifar
    August 19, 2007

    Or to be more precise oil and natural gas by which you get more corn, more corn syrup, and more global warming all at once. How efficient!

  17. #17 Peter Etnoyer
    August 20, 2007

    Interesting perspective, Nick. I agree tap water is underrated, but I think there is room for improvement.

    The local Caller-Times reported Sunday that the reason total coliform levels spiked last week in Corpus Christi, TX is because of excessive rainfall. Not like you would expect, though. Apparently, folks did not need to water their lawns as much, so water sat in the pipes while chlorine dissipated, and E. coli grew. Bottled water flew off the shelves for a week.

    This is just another example of the vulnerability in these municipal water systems, as praiseworthy as they are.

  18. #18 inel
    August 27, 2007

    I agree with Ellen that the real (or an even bigger slice of the) problem is soda. Bottled water competes in that larger bottled drink market so is a healthy alternative, by comparison.

    I wonder how many of the plastic bottles that are thrown away actually held soda, rather than water? I have not seen the numbers compared anywhere. All the arguments about transporting water around on trucks apply equally well to soda, and at least water is not responsible for childhood levels of obesity on the rise in America and Britain.

    We buy bottled water only if it’s sparkling—to get the fizz! Our three kids are only allowed sodas on high days and holidays. Instead we drink water from a Brita filter system that we have used for years, and add juice for flavour. In our area of Britain, Brita filters are a godsend because the water here is so hard the kettle furs up and tea gets that film on top that makes people from soft-water areas think it looks disgusting! Tea made with unfiltered water is not unhealthy, but it is certainly not visually appealing. Also, the energy efficiency of a kettle is reduced by limescale build-up on the element, so Brita helps in that regard too :-)

    Once I splash out on a carbonator that would add the fizz to our water at home, we’d be well away—no more bottled water. SodaStream seems to be the answer.

    In the US, what amazes me, even in California, is that few food & drink places, hotels, and airports, provide recycling facilities. All provide trash cans. I cannot bear to throw a plastic bottle away, so end up taking empty bottles home with me to recycle there whenever possible. This seems ridiculous in this day and age :-|

  19. #19 drcetinerdotorg
    November 21, 2007

    Don’t forget too it’s oil in the form of artificial frertilizer that makes all that high fructose corn syrup possible.

  20. #20 drcetinerdotorg
    November 21, 2007

    thankss..

  21. #21 Olivia
    August 2, 2010

    I have been an advocate for the environment all my life, and yet I was drinking botled water because I can’t stand the taste or smell of tap water, especially in Phoenix.

    BTW, our supposedly safe tap water killed my 5 godfish! I have a little pond in the garden, and every few days I let the garden hose run in the pond for a few minutes. Well, on that day I forgot it and it ran for more than a few minutes. When I went to turn it off I found my 5 goldfish dead!

    Back to my wanting to have a lighter footprint on the environment; I became a water ionizer independent dealer. I now drink the healthiest water and I do not buy plastic bottles any more. As the tap water goes through the ionizer (it is a small unit over or under the kitchen counter, it gets cleaned of the metals, pesticides, chlorine, fluoride, and all kinds of other contaminants, and through the process of electolysis, my water is now ionized, alkaline, micro-clustered, anti-oxidant mineral water, healthy and good tasting.

    Check it out: http://www.LIFEionizer.com/olivia
    and let me know if I can be of service.
    I am on a mission for Healthy People & a Healthy Planet

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