Remember the drinking fountain, that once ubiquitous, and free, source of H2O? It seems quaint now. Instead, bottled water is everywhere, in offices, airplanes, gyms, homes and restaurants across the country.
People in the U.S. buy more than half a BILLION bottles of water every week! Enough to circle the globe twice.
Thirty years ago, bottled water barely existed as a business in the United States. Last year, Americans spent more on Poland Spring, Fiji Water, Evian, Aquafina, and Dasani than on iPods or movie tickets–$15 billion. It will be $16 billion this year.
You’re spending more per gallon than you would on gasoline for this thing that you can get out of the tap virtually for free!
- On average, bottled water costs 2000 times more than tap water.
The controversy isn’t simply about tap vs. bottled water; most people drink both, knowing the importance of plenty of water. What they may not know is that some bottled water may not be as pure as they expect.
- 1/3 of all bottled water sold in the United States is repackaged tap water, including Aquafina (Pepsi Co.) and Dasani (Coca Cola).
In 1999 the NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) tested more than 1,000 bottles of 103 brands of water. (This is the most recent major report on bottled water safety.) While noting that most bottled water is safe, the organization found that at least one sample of a third of the brands contained bacterial or chemical contaminants, including carcinogens, in levels exceeding state or industry standards. Since the report, no major regulatory changes have been made and bottlers haven’t drastically altered their procedures, so the risk is likely still there.
The NRDC found that samples of two brands were contaminated with phthalates, in one case exceeding Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards for tap water. These chemicals, used to make plastic softer, are found in cosmetics and fragrances, shower curtains, even baby toys, and are under increasing scrutiny. They’re endocrine disrupters, which means they block or mimic hormones, affecting the body’s normal functions. And the effects of exposure to the widespread chemicals may add up.
Water bottles do not contain the chemical, which means the phthalates detected by the NRDC probably got into the water during processing at the bottling plant, or were present in the original water source (phthalates have been found in some tap water).
- The potential health risks are important to understand, but bottled water also affects the health of the planet.
“Bottled water is a growing business, and with that comes a whole lot of environmental impact that can be avoided by a turn of the faucet,” says Jenny Powers of the NRDC. While we struggle to cut down on our consumption of fossil fuels, bottled water increases them.
- Plastic is made from petroleum. Making the plastic water bottles used in the U.S. in one year takes enough oil and energy to fuel a million cars.
Virgin petroleum is used to make PET, and the more bottles we use, the more virgin petroleum will be needed to create new bottles. Fossil fuels are burned to fill the bottles and dis-tribute them. (Stephen Kay of IBWA points out that it’s not just bottled water, but juices, soda and other beverages packed in plastic that add to this waste.)
Some brands of water come from islands and countries thousands of miles away, and shipping bottles can cause carbon pollution to spill into the water and spew into the air.
Then there’s the waste of water itself, says Todd Jarvis, PhD, associate director of the Institute for Water and Watersheds at Oregon State University. According to his calculations, it takes about 72 billion gallons of water a year, worldwide, just to make the empty bottles.
Treating and filtering tap water for bottling creates even more waste. By some estimates, it takes about two liters of water to make every liter you see on store shelves. “Bottled water has a significant environmental burden,” says the NRDC’s Goldstein.
- Americans throw out 38 billion empty water bottles a year, more than $1 billion worth of plastic.
So what can we do better?
Try the tap again. First, check it out. If your water comes from a public source (rather than a well), you should get a water-quality or consumer-confidence report from the water company once a year. It’s also available at any time from the local water utility. Read the report carefully, making sure not only that your water has received a passing grade overall but also that contaminants haven’t exceeded the maximum allowable levels, even for a short while. If you have well water, get it tested every year. For more information, call the EPA’s toll-free Safe Drinking Water Hotline at 800-426-4791, or visit the website for the Campaign for Safe and Affordable Drinking Water.
Get a canteen or reusable glass bottle. Carry your plain or filtered tap water in a reusable stainless steel or lined drinking container, and clean it between uses. Here are some I like from Amazon.
Think twice about the office watercooler. If it’s made of polycarbonate, it has the potential to leach BPA, a chemical that can cause neurological problems, among other things. And have you ever seen anyone actually clean the watercooler? Probably not.
Shop smart. When you must have bottled, look for brands that have NSF certification or belong to IBWA. Check out the lists at http://nsf.org or http://bottledwater.org or look at the bottle itself (the NSF logo appears on labels of tested brands). If the brand you’re looking for isn’t there, contact the bottler. Ask where the water is bottled and what exactly is in it.
Keep it cool. Don’t drink from a bottle that’s been subjected to high temperatures (sitting in your car, for example), don’t store it anywhere it will be exposed to heat or chemicals, and don’t reuse plastic bottles.
Choose glass over plastic when possible, reuse the container as much as you can and when you’re done, recycle!