Tree Hugger Tuesday: Take Back the Tap.
Well hello there, and welcome to the first ever Tree-Hugger Tuesday post! And what, pray tell, exciting environmentally-friendly lipstick-hippie topic did I choose to kick things off??
For this inaugural post, I want to discuss – bottled water!
Bottled water? you say. Wow, Nikki, exciiiiiting.
Perhaps not what you were expecting? Ah, but it’s one of those things that makes me twitch with desire for a but the planet says no! soapbox. In addition, it touches on many different environmental issues. Surprise.
It’s also something most of us are less-than informed about, and equates to something we can all do in our daily lives that requires little effort. So – seemed kind of fitting.
Basically, I have a serious problem with bottled water. For the following reasons:
- Initial Environmental Cost: Bottled water comes from somewhere. It is removed, processed and packaged. Doing so requires the establishment of factories and industrial infrastructure, as well as the consumption of resources and fossil fuels during the process of extraction, purification, and bottling. This process also contributes to chemical and air pollution, releasing 2.5 million tons of carbon dioxide (in 2006). It takes water to make water: three liters are necessary to make one liter that is bottled.
In addition, this process extracts water from one area, and moves it somewhere else. This isn’t a grand idea, environmentally-speaking. While water is in a sense renewable (but finite), many systems are dependent on a certain amount of water to be available. Moving it upsets these natural cycles and can drastically deplete local reservoirs. It’s also not that great for the people living there. This can reduce access to water, or, in some cases, double the cost of water for local people. That’s not just in foreign countries – the societal cost of bottling and moving water was felt in Maine, as well as New Hampshire.
- Transportation: Bottled water is also transported long distances and kept cool, further incurring fossil fuel and resource costs, and contributing to air and other pollution. Once it reaches a vending machine near you, bottled water uses well over 900 gallons of oil a year.
- Unnecessary consumption: Apologies, but to me? Bottled water is one of the most asinine things we buy (… and we buy a lot of asinine things). Water comes out of taps, faucets, drinking fountains, for free. Pretty much everywhere. And yet.
Assume you buy a bottle of water for $1. That’s about 5 cents an ounce. Municipal water costs less than one cent per gallon. Or, if you’d rather compare your bottle with your car, gasoline costs about $3.75 in my neck o’ the woods right now. At 128 ounces in a gallon, that’s just under 3 cents per ounce for gasoline. You’re paying more for a bottle of water than for a bottle of gas. And it’s a bottle you don’t even need to purchase in the first place. I really dislike unnecessary consumerism. It’s just annoying.
- Unnecessary Packaging: To add insult to injury, put all that expensive and environmentally-sad water in a freakin’ plastic bottle. According to 2006 stats, it took 17 million barrels of oil to make 28 million water bottles. And then maybe add some paper labels. Or just, you know, more plastic. Plastic that, btw, comes from oil. And paperboard that, you know, comes from trees.
- Health Considerations: I understand one of the main reasons most people choose bottled water is because it’s “better” or “safer” than tap. Well. Consider this: Tap water is regulated by local and state agencies, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, the EPA has maximum contaminant levels for approximately 90 contaminants and 15 secondary maximum contaminant levels for tap water. Bottled water, on the other hand, is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The National Resource Defense Council reports major gaps in FDA regulations, and that these regulations are in general less strict than those on your tap. Furthermore, if bottled water does not cross state lines for sale, it is exempt from FDA oversight, altogether.
Of course, local and state regulation can be uneven in some locations. But. Tap water contamination must be reported immediately to the public, whereas contamination of bottled water has, in the past, received much less attention. In addition, keep in mind that a lot of bottled water is simply filtered tap water, anyway.
Finally, focusing more on buying bottled water removes attention from updating and maintaining public water systems.
- The End Game ~ Waste: But Nikki, you say, all those plastic bottles can be recycled! Thank you for bringing up an excellent point. First and foremost, we should reduce and then reuse before we recycle, as recycling has environmental costs (I’ll talk about this in more detail sooner or later). While better than land-fillin’ it, plastic recycling in particular is not a panacea – not all plastic can actually be recycled, or is recycled, and it’s still environmentally costly. Hence – reduce your use and reuse what you’ve got first.
We’re not all that great at recycling any way. According to the Container Recycling Institute (CRI), taxpayers spend hundreds of millions a year to clean up plastic bottles. 25% of plastic bottles end up in the ocean, contributing to giant masses of trash (thanks, Oprah!) and harming or killing marine life that mistake them for food. As for the bottles that do get cleaned up, in 2008, CRI estimated that more than 80% of plastic bottles ended up in landfills or incinerators. As it is not biodegradable, when dumped, plastic will remain as is for literally thousands of year. When incinerated, the bottles release toxic gas and ash.
Finally – even though the plastic itself will still be there loooong after your grandkid’s grandkid’s grandkid’s grandkid is dead and burried, they can still photo-degrade and leak chemicals into the ground, water, or air.
- Other thoughts – Corporatization of water: While this may or may not be particular to your concerns, large corporations are rapidly privatizing water supplies. This can have incredible affects on local water (as mentioned previously), as well as drawing support away from local water supply infrastructure, thus causing significant inequality on a social scale.
In addition, much bottled water is owned by large companies – Pepsi owns Aquafina, Coca-Cola owns Dasani, and Nestle Poland Spring. Drinking those bottled water brands means supporting those large companies. For what that’s worth.
Take my advice: I would love love love it if not one more bottle of water was ever bought. That bottling what should be a basic human right was not something profitable, and that all our money currently spent on it went towards upgrading water supply infrastructure the world over, making safe, clean, drinking water available everywhere – and making it more efficient and less wasteful.
Instead of buying that plastic bottle of water, purchase a reusable water bottle. Fill it with free tap water. Or, if you must, get your own filter for your tap. You can find a good discussion of options here or photos of some options here. I also recommend researching one you like best, and then buying it direct from a local business (e.g. the mom-n-pop store around the corner, not your local REI) instead of having it shipped. Sure, it might be a dollar or two more, but you’re supporting your local community!
In all honesty, I’d buy more than one bottle. If you’re like me, you forget things all the time. I have one bottle for my house, one for my office, and one for my bike. And one in my car. Up-front cost? Sure. But worth every penny.
I hope you enjoyed by first Tree-Hugger Tuesday post – and learned something too! Let me know what you think – and please consider going re-usable over those pesky plastic throw-aways next time you need H2O on the go!
Further reading/references: (or just search for something like “bottled water vs. tap” – I’m not exactly breaking new ground here)