Monday, April 18, 2005

 

Aquafina – the private school of drinking water

When I was young, the idea of buying bottled water as one’s regular source of drinking water was absurd. Bottled water was for stocking a tornado shelter, or for driving across the desert, or for when the water-well pump for the family that wasn’t on the city water system broke down.

Americans’ water-drinking habits have undergone a relatively quiet revolution. Somewhere along the line, broad swaths of the American public lost faith in the quality of tap water. I’m included in this. I’m not sure what it was – rumors of pollutants in public water reservoirs, or of bacteria or metallic residue in plumbing? In any case, a huge percentage of Americans now get most of their drinking water from bottled water. Don’t ask me for figures – you know it’s true. The bottled drinking water industry has exploded.

What drove this home for me was not the ubiquitous small plastic bottles of Poland Spring, Crystal Geyser and the Coke-and-Pepsi products, Dasani and Aquafina, respectively. It was the baseball steroid hearings before Congress. At the witness tables, next to the microphones in front of Mark McGwire, Raphael Palmiero, Sammy Sosa and Curt Schilling were not the traditional pitcher-and-water glass, the prop of the nervous congressional witness. There were small bottles of commercial bottled water. Yes, I know professional athletes are product-placement whores, but these were the halls of Congress, for gosh sakes! Bottled water has taken over.

So what that a commodity delivered free to apartment dwellers and at a nominal cost to homeowners is now widely eschewed in favor of the far more expensive bottled alternative?

An environmentalist friend of mine makes these very persuasive arguments. Check the facts out for yourself, but I’m going to try to cut way down on bottled water.

1. Something else to drill for. In addition to depleting watersheds and springs, the bottled water industry creates environmental impact by giving private industry yet another monetary incentive to tramp into wilderness areas and extract resources. Apparently, unlike oil drilling, there isn’t really any regulation in place to slow them down.

2. What makes us think the bottled water quality is so good? There are no regulations in place to ensure that bottled drinking water is in fact any “healthier” than tap water. In fact, a lot of bottled water is tap water, though it may go through extra distillation. Home filtrations systems may be the best way to deal privately with concerns about the quality of your tap water.

3. I have one word for you: plastics. The bottled water boom has been an incredible bonanza for the plastics industry. The plastic bottles, particularly the smaller ones, are extremely wasteful of resources; though technically recyclable, only a small percentage of plastic water bottles are recycled, and even most of those we dutifully put in recycling bins end up as trash -- put in landfill or even incinerated, thereby releasing toxins into the air.

4. Privatization. A massive middle-class exodus from the public drinking water system may reduce our social commitment to public drinking water quality. Drinking water supply may become a candidate for budget cutting. Result: poor water for poor people. Hence the title of this post.

***

UPDATE: See the report at emagazine.com here for more details. (For the info on recycling, scroll down about 4/5 of the way to the heading "Big Footprint.")

***

Comments:
I'm not a big consumer of bottled water, but I'd like to know more about this plastics-recycling sham. Why are the bottles not really recyclable?
 
Phantom -- check out my correction/clarification at #3 plus the link in the "update."
 
Environmentalists have told us that water quality is getting worse for years. People are scared to drink tap water because it's supposedly full of so many pollutants and chemicals (like the horrible dihydrogen monoxide)... As you state, bottled water could be more or less clean than tap water.

I like tap water.

BTW, lots of bottled waters cost more per gallon than gasoline. It boggles my mind why so many people buy it. I can see having it for travel or while you are out of the home, but drinking bottled water at home strikes me as pretty absurd.
 
I've been on an anti-bottled-water crusade for quite some time. It's amazing what doomsaying can accomplish. People are paying more for water, something that is basically free to them from another source, than they are for gas or milk or soda. The Coke and Pepsi brands are acutally Coke and Pepsi minus syrpu and carbonation. People are literally paying more for the raw materials that Coke and Pepsi use than they are for the actual product.

If anyone wants to see the extremes people will got to to aviod tap water, Penn & Teller talk about bottled water in the first season of their Showtime show "Bullshit." It's pretty funny.

Plastic bottles are not always recycled because recycling, much like bottled water, is a product of doom-saying. The exception to this is aluminum cans. It is smart and efficient to recycle aluminum. Plastic, however, takes much more energy to recycle than it does to make from scratch. Recycling is an industrial process. It may "use up" more resources to make it from scratch but the polution produced, energy used, and tax money and man power wasted by recyling plastic makes it basically a wash at best.
 
Thanks for providing more information, Oscar. Now I can give myself a little pat on the back for not buying bottled water. And then I can go back to feeling guilty about everything else...
 
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