April 8, 2008

Water, water everywhere

Following Adrian's green footsteps, I just wanted to share with you my write-up to pitch an article about bottled water during my internship with GOOD Magazine over the summer. It's long because I got really into researching facts...but hey, skip read it!

How do you like your water? Fruity, salty, earthy, silky, or gritty? For something that is a universal solvent, we have attached high standards to how we want our water to taste. But surprisingly, taste is not the reason why we choose our bottled water brand favorites. Only 7% of consumers purchase bottled water for its flavor; 35% claim that they buy bottled water because they worry about the health safety of their tap water.

And yet the National Resources Defense Council conducted a 4-year study on bottled water industry that ended with three particularly astonishing results:

1) EPA's regulations on municipal tap water are more stringent than FDA’s regulations on sold water bottles,
2) ¼ of the 1000 bottled water tested were contaminated at levels violating strict enforceable state limits (for purposes of this test, California's state limits were used)
3) ¼ of the bottles in the market are sourced at the same place where we get our tap water

So essentially when we buy bottled water an Aquafina (PepsiCo owned) or a Dasani (Coca-Cola owned) in the supermarket, we're really just paying for packaged tap water.

And on top of it all, we tend to forget (or deliberately ignore) the environmental damage those seemingly friendly and recyclable plastic bottles create. Last year, we spent more on Poland Spring, Fiji Water, Evian, Aquafina, and Dasani than we spent on iPods or movie tickets—at $15 billion —for bottles that use approximately 20 million barrels of oil per year in manufacturing. The amount of oil used to distribute the $15 billion worth of water bottles is equivalent to the gas 37,800 18-wheelers would use up.

And of the 14 billion water bottles that were sold in the United States in 2002, 90% were thrown in the trash, even though most of them were made of recyclable PET plastic.

Here’s a case study worth remembering: a Fiji Water bottle that holds 1 liter requires 5 liters of water in its manufacturing process (this includes power plant cooling water). Other wastes include 81g of fossil fuels, 720g of water, and 153g of GHGs (greenhouse gases) per bottle delivered to the US from Fiji. But all of this damage is worth it when considering that the cost to produce and deliver a bottle of imported water is only $0.22, leaving $1.28 profit per Fiji water bottle for the manufacturer and the retail store. Unfortunately, most people who quench their thirst with exotic water from Fiji don't realize that half of Fiji’s population don't even have access to safe drinking water. Neither does 1/6 of the world’s population, and yet we keep buying more and more fancy bottled water from obscure places rather than packaging your tap water in the morning.

Sure, buying bottled water may improve the downsloping economy, but not by much. In Charles Fishman’s words: “Bottled water is not a sin. But it is a choice.” And if you choose to be good, please start using canisters for water. You save money while saving the world's oil and air. Killing two birds with one stone has never been this easy.

1. American Water Works Association Research Foundation, Consumer Attitude Survey on Water Quality Issues, p. 19 (1993)
2. Fishman, Charles. “Message in a Bottle” Fast Company Magazine, July 2007, issue 117, p. 110
3. Harper’s Magazine July 2007
Water bottles in United States from Patricia Franklin, "Letter from the Executive Director," Container and Package Recyling Update (CRI, Arlington, VA), summer/fall 20003, p. 2;
4. Kalyan Moitra, "Recycle Onus on PET Producers, Says PCB," Economic Times of India , 27 June 2003; Container Recycling Institute, Bottle Bill Resource Guide, at www.bottlebill.org.
5. Pablo Pundit http://www.triplepundit.com/pages/askpablo-exotic-bottled-water-002401.php
6. WHO Factsheet 2004

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