"You drink tap water? Are you crazy?" asks a 21-year-old radio producer from Chicago. I only drink bottled water. In a trendy nightclub in New York, the bartender tells guests they can only be served bottled water, which costs $5 for each tiny container. One outraged clubber is stopped by the restroom attendant as she tries to refill the bottle from the tap. You can't do that, says the attendant. New York's tap water isn't safe.
Bottled water is so ubiquitous that people can hardly ask for water anywhere without being handed a bottle. But what is the cost to society and the environment?
Whether a consumer is shopping, working out, eating in a restaurant or grabbing a refreshment on the go, he or she will likely be tempted to buy bottled water. The product comes in a growing variety of sizes and shapes, including one bottle that looks like a drop of water with a golden cap. Some fine hotels now offer the services of "water sommeliers" to advise diners on which water to drink with different courses.
A widening spectrum of bottled water types are crowding the market, including spring, mineral, purified, distilled, carbonated, oxygenated, caffeinated and vitamin-enriched, as well as flavors and brands aimed at children. Bottled water bars have sprung up in the hipper districts, from Paris to Los Angeles.
How silly can it get? The K9 Water Company of Valencia, California sells beef, liver, chicken and lamb-flavored bottled waters for dogs. You can even get all four in a combo pack "so your dog can decide..."
It's really all about marketing. Advertisers have done an effective job persuading us that our tap water isn't safe. We're exhorted to buy the one liquid we can't live without from private companies who dress up bottles with pretty nature scenes that contradict the true environmental impact of their enterprises.
The message is clear: Bottled water is "good" water, as opposed to that nasty, unsafe stuff that comes out of the tap. But in most cases tap water adheres to stricter purity standards than bottled water, whose source - far from a mountain spring - can be wells underneath industrial facilities. Indeed, 40 percent of bottled water began life as, well, tapwater.
Consumers associate bottled water with social status and healthy living. Their perceptions trump their objectivity, because even people who claim to have switched to bottled water "for the taste" can't tell the difference: Good Morning America conducted a taste test and New York City tap water was chosen as the heavy favorite over the oxygenated water 02, Poland Spring and Evian. Many of the "facts" that bottled water drinkers swear by are erroneous.
While much tap water is indeed risky, the NRDC found that there is no assurance that bottled water is any safer than tap water. University of Geneva scientists arrived at the same conclusion, and add that, in 50% of the cases studied, the only difference between tap and bottled water was that the latter contained added minerals and salts, "which do not mean the water is healthier." The FAO states bottled water does not have greater nutritional value than tap water. So why do so many people think otherwise?
The NRDC tested more than 1,000 bottles of 103 brands of bottled water. The group concluded, "Although most bottled water tested was of good quality, some brands' quality was spotty." A third of the brands were found to contain contaminants such as arsenic and carcinogenic compounds in some samples at levels exceeding state or industry standards.
Another area of potential concern is the fact that no agency calls for testing of bottled water after it leaves its initial packaging plant, leaving some to wonder what happens during months of storage and transport. The Kansas Department of Health and Environment tested 80 samples of bottled water from retail stores and manufacturers. All 80 of the samples had detectable levels of chlorine, fluoride and sodium.
As ABC News put it, "Ad campaigns touting spring-fed or glacier-born H2O are winning over a population increasingly skeptical of taps and willing to shell out big bucks for what they consider a purer, tastier and safer drink." Water bottlers use product names such as More Precious Than Gold, Ice Mountain, Desert Quench, Pure American, Utopia and Crystal Springs. The Environmental Law Foundation has sued eight bottlers on the basis that they used words like "pure" to market water containing bacteria, arsenic and chlorine breakdown products.
The number one (Aquafina) and two (Dasani) top-selling brands of bottled water in the U.S. both fall in the category of purified water. Dasani is sold by Coca-Cola, while Aquafina is a Pepsi product. As U.S. News & World Report explains, "Aquafina is municipal water from spots like Wichita, Kansas." The news magazine continues, "Coke's Dasani (with minerals added) is taken from the taps of Queens, New York, Jacksonville, Florida, and elsewhere." Everest bottled water originates from southern Texas, while Yosemite brand is drawn from the Los Angeles suburbs.
For the price of one bottle of Evian, a person can use 1,000 gallons of tap water in the home.
Environmentalists question the purpose of lugging those heavy, inefficient, polluting bottles all over the Earth. World Wide Fund for Nature argues that the product is a waste of money and is very environmentally unfriendly. Co-op America concludes: "By far the cheapest - and often the safest - option is to drink water from a tap. It's also the most environmentally friendly option." Friends of the Earth says, "We might as well drink water from the tap and save all this waste."
Distribution of bottled water requires substantially more fuel than delivering tap water. Over 22 million tons of the bottled liquid is transferred each year from country to country. Instead of relying on a mostly preexisting infrastructure of underground pipes and plumbing, delivering bottled water burns fossil fuels and results in the release of harmful emissions. Electricity is expended for refrigeration. Energy is likewise used in bottled water processing. In filtration, an estimated two gallons of water is wasted for every gallon purified.
When most people think of bottled water, they envision the single-serve plastic bottle, which is now available almost anywhere food products are sold. The WWF estimates that around 1.5 million tons of plastic are used globally each year in water bottles, leaving a sizable manufacturing footprint. Most water bottles are made of the oil-derived polyethylene terephthalate (PET). Manufacturing PET generates more than 100 times the toxic emissions compared to making the same amount of glass. Making plastic bottles requires almost the same energy input as making glass bottles, despite transport savings that stem from plastic's light weight.
The Container Recycling Institute says nine out of 10 plastic water bottles end up as either garbage or litter - at a rate of 30 million per day. When some 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. If plastics are buried in landfills, not only do they take up valuable space, but potentially toxic additives such as phthalates may leak into the groundwater. It's ironic that people drink bottled water because they are afraid of tap water, but then the bottles they discard can result in more polluted water.
Only five percent of plastic waste is currently recycled in America and much of that must be fortified with huge amounts of virgin plastic. One limitation is that recycling plastic causes it to lose strength and flexibility, meaning the process can only be done a few times with any given sample.
Different types of plastics are difficult to sort, even though they can't be recycled together. Plastic additives (phthalates or metal salts) can also thwart recycling efforts as can too high a ratio of colored bottles (such as Dasani's blue containers) to clear bottles. Because of the challenges, many recycling centers refuse to accept plastics. In fact, a fair amount of America's plastic recycling is done in Asia, where laxer environmental laws govern polluting factories and fuel is spent in international transport.
The California Department of Conservation (CDOC) says more than one billion water bottles are ending up in the state's trash each year - enough plastic to make 16 million sweaters. Only 16 percent of PET water bottles sold in California are being recycled, compared to much higher rates for aluminum and glass.
Franklin says one potential deterrent to recycling may be that water bottles are often used away from home, meaning they aren't likely to make it into curbside bins. Young advises people to ask for recycling bins in retail and public spaces.
Alternatives to bottled water - boiling and filtering - are cheaper and more sustainable in areas that have contaminated tap sources. Fill your own bottles to take with you on the go. Spring and other specialty waters can be purchased in bulk.
Cut back on bottled water and look to tap systems to provide daily needs. Incidents of chemical or microbial contamination in tap water are actually relatively rare. Reliable water is currently available to nearly all 270 million U.S. residents.
Tap water does face numerous threats, including possible contamination from the potentially harmful byproducts of chlorination, the specter of pollution and a lack of adequate funding. Governments should focus their limited energies on repairing current tap water infrastructures and on protecting watersheds from harmful farm, industry and urban pollutants. We certainly need to think twice before handing off the public water trust to private companies that put it in attractive bottles at a high price.
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Message in a Bottle - Despite the Hype, Bottled Water is Neither CLEANER nor GREENER Than Tap Water