Put that bottle Down!

In the last decade, the bottled water industry, thanks to an onslaught of heavy handed marketing tactics, has turned into a $35 billion global business. Looking for a refreshing drink? Head to the nearest corner store or cafe and they’ll sell you water in a plastic bottle for $1.00 or more. What has brought about this enormous change in the way we drink water, a substance necessary for survival? Water has turned into a huge industry with the world’s most powerful multinationals such as Pepsi, Coke, and Nestle all vying to quench your thirst.

Remember those days when we used to fill our glasses from the kitchen or even the bathroom sink? Due to an industry campaign to incite fear of tap water into the masses, many have turned to water filters, and increasingly, individual plastic bottles of water and boxed water by the case, shrink wrapped in more plastic that will take thousands of years to break down.

In most first world nations where there are strict tap water regulations, thus it is unnecessary to buy bottled water. While it may be convenient due to the lack of public drinking fountains, people did just fine until a few years ago finding a cup of water. Now that the marketing and availability of bottled water is everywhere, it’s hard to avoid bottled water when you’re out and would prefer water to a soft drink or juice. It is far better from an economic, environmental, and public health point of view to improve public drinking water supplies than it is to have a massive societal shift from consumer use of tap water to use of bottled water.

What’s in tap water?

The fear of contaminants in our water is one major reason people are buying bottled water. Here in the East Bay of the San Francisco Bay Area, the majority of our drinking water comes from EBMUD (East Bay Municipal Utility District). Ninety percent of EBMUD’s water comes from the 577 square mile watershed of the Mokelumne River, which collects Sierra Nevada snow melt and flows into the Pardee Reservoir near the town of Valley Springs. According to the 2005 EBMUD Water Quality Report, the Sierra watershed is mostly undeveloped land, little affected by human activity. It is also protected from pesticides, agricultural and urban runoff, municipal sewage and industrial discharges. Unlike bottled water manufacturers, California municipalities are required to file annual reports under the California Safe Drinking Water Act. These disclosures list all the constituents found within the drinking water provided by the local municipality.

What’s in Bottled Water?

In order to ensure that tap water is safe to drink, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) prescribe regulations that limit the amount of certain contaminants in water provided by public water systems. However the EPA does not regulate contaminants in bottled water. Water bottlers are not required to test for the presence of E. coli, cryptosporidium, giardia, asbestos, or certain organic compounds such as benzenes. Instead, bottled water is regulated under weaker Food and Drug Administration standards.

The National Resource Defense Council tested 1000 bottles of water and concluded that there is no assurance that water out of a bottle is any cleaner or safer than water from the tap. And in fact, an estimated 25 percent or more of bottled water is really just tap water in a bottle — sometimes further treated, sometimes not.

PepsiCo’s Aquafina is just heavily filtered water — not spring water or glacier water or geyser water, just water — and Coke’s Dasani is the same with a blend of minerals added back in for taste. In fact, Coke recently ran afoul of the FDA for billing Dasani as purified water; thanks to the added minerals, it now meets the labeling requirement.

Many bottles of water show images of healthy, active people or the Alps and Rockies and every other mountain range covered with pure white snow. Most bottled water does not actually come from these pristine sources. Check the bottle label or cap to see if it comes “from a municipal source” or “from a community water system”.

Environmental damage

Supplying drinking water in plastic bottles rather than through existing plumbing systems requires vast quantities of natural resources to manufacture the plastic bottles and then to move heavy shipments of water bottles from place to place. Bottled water replaces the decentralized use of local resources for local purposes with an centralized, corporate-controlled, industrial system on a global scale.

The World Wildlife Fund estimates that around 1.5 million tons of plastic are used globally each year in water bottles, creating a sizable manufacturing footprint. Most water bottles are made of the oil-derived polyethylene terephthalate, which is known as PET. While PET is less toxic than many plastics, the Berkeley Ecology Center found that manufacturing PET generates more than 100 times the toxic emissions — in the form of nickel, ethylbenzene, ethylene oxide and benzene — compared to making the same amount of glass. The Container Recycling Institute estimates that, in one year, supplying thirsty Americans with water bottles consumes more than 1.5 million barrels of oil.

According to the Beverage Marketing Corporation, the US bottled water industry sold 6.8 billion gallons of water in 2004. Most was moved by trucks burning massive quantities of fossil fuels that contribute to global warming. Global sales of bottled water was 41 billion gallons for 2004. Over 22 millions tons of bottled water is transferred every year between different countries.

Ironically, making all that plastic and refining all that oil contributes to water pollution that makes people scared to drink tap water in the first place.

Moreover, bottled water generates massive amounts of trash. According to the Container Recycling Institute, nine out of 10 plastic water bottles in the US end up as either garbage or litter — at a rate of 30 million per day. According to the Climate Action Network, when plastic bottles are incinerated along with other trash, as is the practice in many municipalities, toxic chlorine (and potentially dioxin) is released into the air while heavy metals deposit in the ash. Plastic water bottle litter can take up to 1,000 years to biodegrade.

Recycling water bottles is difficult because plastic loses quality during recycling. As a result, most bottles collected for recycling in the US are shipped to Asia to avoid environmental regulations. Even when they are recycled, they are merely turned into another plastic item, often using large amount of virgin resources in the process.

The Developing world

This article’s concentration on “first world water” aims to expose the role of the corporate beverage industry without downplaying the degree to which actual polluted water sources affect many areas of the world, the United States included.

Developing countries are facing grave consequences from bottled water. With a wide availability of bottled water, municipal water standards are not improving as they should. Water remains dangerous in many areas around the world. The governments use the availability of bottled water as an excuse when in truth the average person cannot afford to live off bottled water. When this happens, water turns into a luxury to be bought and sold instead of a necessity for life. This is to say nothing about multi-national attempts to privatize even tap water in the developing world — that will have to wait for another article This is the real danger of bottled water.

What you can do.

*Contact your local municipal water source and ask for a water quality report so you can find out the truth about your local water. You might be surprised how much more quality control the water coming out of your tap has than bottled water. .

*Get a handy beverage holder that you can take around with you so you don’t have to shell out the cash for a bottle of water when you’re thirsty.

*Be aware that in large part, bottled water is a marketing ploy by international beverage companies to make more money.