The Story of Stuff tells the tale of bottled water best – http://storyofstuff.org/bottledwater/ – but in honor of the upcoming World Water Day (3/22) I wanted to share some of my thoughts on the conundrum that is bottled water.
I work for a natural resource organization, yet time and again I see my colleagues carrying around bottles of water. Sometimes they’re reusing old bottles and filling them up with tap water, which is ok, I guess. But it still means that they had to have bought a bottle of water at some point. And I am not 100% innocent in this either – although it’s been years since I’ve spent $ on individual bottles of water I have purchased a gallon or two for camping trips in years past. It seems like we can’t avoid bottled water. I go to a conference – that’s what’s offered, I eat at a restaurant – that’s what they try to push on me. Even when we’ve organized events with “sustainability” in their title, the event planners can’t understand why we ask for pitchers of water, rather than bottles. Because it’s not sustainable, I want to shout!
I could tell you that bottled water is less heavily regulated than tap water, which it is. I could tell you that many bottled water companies just filter tap water anyway, so you’re paying $2 for what comes almost free out of your tap, which is also true. Or I could tell you that so much petroleum is needed to create a bottle of water – from making the plastic for the bottle to shipping it to the store – that it’s helping to fuel our addiction to foreign oil, which it is. But what I am most concerned about our the impacts our addiction to bottled water has on the natural world.
When a bottling company withdraws water in state A, but then ships the water all over the country, the water doesn’t end up back in the watershed from which it was taken (in the form of wastewater treatment effluent from, you guessed it, your toilet). This can lead to aquifer depletion in state A, because the water is taken out but not replaced at a fast enough rate from precipitation (enhanced by all our black top parking lots and roads that impede infiltration). Without enough groundwater, not only do local residents have troubled getting enough water out of their tap (forcing them to rely on bottled water!) but the plants and animals that rely on that water are also at a loss (and they can’t go to the grocery store to buy some water).
Another problem I have with bottled water is the bottle itself. It’s made of plastic. Some bottles are recycled, which is good, but most end up in a landfill where they won’t decompose, or worse yet, they get washed into a stream and end up in our oceans. Eventually the bottles will break down in an oxygen-rich environment, but break down into easily eaten pieces of plastic. Sea life can’t tell the different between tiny pieces of plastic and their normal food source. The plastic may or may not kill them. Companies are experimenting with plant-based plastics and recycling is becoming more common place, but we still have a long way to go.
I’ll get down off my high horse in a second. Thanks for reading my rant. If I can leave you with any parting thoughts it’s that I encourage everyone to cut down on their consumption of bottled water (and other beverages in plastic bottles, for that matter). If you live in the U.S., chances are your tap water is very clean, very tasty, and very cheap in comparison to bottled water. Buy a reusable stainless steel water bottle, fill it up at your sink, and make a statement that you like saving money and protecting the planet. It’s not just a tree hugger thing to do, it’s a savvy saver thing to do. And in this economic climate, who could use a few more dollars in their pocket?!