Sunday, January 21, 2007

Disposable water bottles blow WEEK

As many of you know, the impetus for this blog was the discovery of an obscene amount of plastic water bottles in my car. I had been grabbing one at work almost every morning, even though there was a 5-gallon dispenser right next to the personal plastic bottles. And, I had a mug on my desk. Yikes! I knew I should be just filling up my mug--I really did feel a pang of guilt every time I got a bottle. But for some reason, grabbing my own personal bottle always just seemed like a much nicer, fresh, pure start to each day. Know what I'm talking about? It was all mine, bottled just for me at the source of some font of pure mountain water, right? Not exactly, but the good news first: I'm happy to report that since that day, almost 3 months ago, nary a disposable water bottle have I consumed. And only 1 disposable cup, for that matter. It has been really easy to get in the habit of bringing my own bottle wherever I go. People, we are proving little by little that bad habits can be reversed, and quickly, for that matter!

But I'd like to dwell on the psychology behind that easy, breezy justification for grabbing a disposable water bottle every day. These handy little portables have been marketed as a symbol of health, and their ubiquity needs no explanation. They might have started out as a yuppie indulgence, spotting yoga classes and gyms initially, but now you can barely order water at a café or bar without having to pay for a bottle. Indeed, many people only drink out of disposable bottles. There is a perception that bottled water is healthier and pure, free of any scary toxins that may exist in tap water. We hear about arsenic, nitrates and other chemicals in tap water and turn fearfully to bottled water. The water bottling industry has capitalized on that apprehension and has grown exponentially in the last decade. We can now choose between an increasingly expanding number of brands, each cleverly named and packaged to evoke the image of purity and the peace of mind that accompanies it. Fuji, Arrowhead, Sparkletts, Dasani, Everest, Penta, and old-school Evian, which I blame for starting the water bottling craze and the accompanying cultural indicators that it evoked. (Wasn't it the first "designer" water brand that made the kind of water you drink a class indicator?) And of course they all must distinguish themselves from each other, so there's constantly a purity one-uping with each new brand that hits the market. Penta calls itself "ultra premium" and claims to be arsenic and chlorine-free, which ingeniously and instantly calls into question what you're getting in every other brand of bottled water, not to mention from the old-fashioned kind that flows through pipes. So we buy into it, and we pay heavily for that peace of mind. Americans ponied up an estimated $11 billion in 2006 for bottled water, a rate that seems to grow about 10% a year.

I'm starting to feel like Debbie Downer folks, but, alas, there is no guarantee that bottled water is any purer than tap water. The key issue here is regulation. It turns out that city (tap) water is regulated by the EPA, while bottled water is monitored by the FDA. For obvious reasons, the government has stringent guidelines that outline how often city water must be tested for various bacteria and chemicals. And across the board, these requirements are much more far-reaching and strict than those the FDA has for bottled water.

And the real kicker is that the FDA exempts water that is packaged and sold within the same state from their rules, so 60-70% of the water sold in the U.S. is NOT REGULATED by the federal government. States regulations vary. If that wasn't enough, anywhere between 25% and 40% of bottled water is just tap water that may or may not have received treatment or minerals that don't necessarily have additional health benefits. And there is nothing on the bottle that tells you where it's really from, so for example, according to U.S. News & World Report, "Aquafina is municipal water from spots like Wichita, Kansas...Coke's Dasani (with minerals added) is taken from the taps of Queens, New York, Jacksonville, Florida, and elsewhere." This is a complex issue but if you would like to know more of the details, check out NRDC's analysis of the water bottling industry. A few years ago they did a 4-year study on bottled water, testing over 100 brands, and concluded that bottled water is no safer than tap water.

Now that we know we're not necessarily getting any health benefit from bottled water, let's look at the enormous environmental footprint our little "healthy" habit is causing. Remember, the primary problem with plastic products is their production in the first place (i.e, it doesn't matter if every plastic bottle was recycled--the manufacturing of them uses up a ridiculous amount of resources and causes massive pollution). According to the World Wildlife Fund, 1.5 million tons of plastic are used to make the bottles every year, which is made from an equivalent 1.5 million barrels of oil. Funny, I thought we trying to decrease our dependency on oil...Apparently, with that amount of oil, we could power electricity in 250,000 homes for a year, or fuel 100,000 cars, also for a year. And, as in all manufacturing, an enormous amount of energy is used, releasing Co2 and other pollutants and toxins. All that happens even if we DO recycle our bottles, but mostly we don't--at least 85% of plastic bottles end up in the trash. And as we know, plastic doesn't really ever biodegrade--it just breaks down in tiny toxic particles that seep into the ground, ironically, polluting our water. Additionally, bottled water is often transported long distances by various forms of transportation that all burn lots of fossil fuels.

So, what's the solution? Drink out of real glasses when you're at home or at work. Fill up your reusable bottle before you go work out. Encourage the folks in your office/yoga class/kickball league to do the same. Take your bottle with you in the car so you don't have to pop into a store for a disposable one. A little planning goes a long way. I even take mine with me to lunch because some restaurants will still give you a disposable cup even if you're dining in…Grr! I've tried a few different reusable bottles, but the one I've settled on is the stainless steel one above. I am super-attached to this little thing! It really is just a glorified canteen disguised as a piece of art, but that makes me actually want to carry it around. I recommend metal canteens over plastic reusable bottles, because they stay cleaner, and are safer to drink out of than plastic. You can get this and other stainless steel canteens from for $20--probably less than you spend on disposable bottles every month.

On that point, I have encountered one little snag in what I thought was a perfect solution to our water imbibing problems. As you've probably heard, there are reports that certain types of plastic are not safe to drink from. I always thought this was a conspiracy from the water bottling companies to get you to buy more bottles, but it turns out there is truth to it. Unfortunately, I have discovered that the one kind of plastic you really want to stay away from is #7 made from polycarbonate. And disturbingly, this is the kind of plastic the 5- gallon Sparkletts bottles delivered to my house are made from. Before that discovery, I was going to brag about how easy it is to just refill your reusable bottle from the water cooler at work or at home. So, my next task is to figure out what I'm going to do about my personal water situation. For now, I'm still drinking practically all my water from those 5-gallon bottles, but I'm going to do some more research. If bottled water isn't even safer and it's being housed in the worst kind of plastic, maybe I'm better off drinking tap water and buying a filter. Any ideas?

One last thing. For me, the water bottle issue is emblematic of the major problem we are facing as a planet right now--the emphasis on the personal versus the collective. Our worldwide water supply is polluted. Billions of people do not have access to clean water, period. The water in this country is increasingly polluted, but buying bottled water is not a long-term solution. We need to figure out how to stop polluting our water supplies and focus on making clean, free water available to everyone. As the NRDC puts it, "The long-term solution to our water woes is to fix our tap water so it is safe for everyone, and tastes and smells good."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Sara, I know this is not a "plastic free" suggestion, but Jordan and I use the Brita water pitcher in the fridge. When he moved in, it save me from buying Trader Joe's water every month or more and definitely cut down on my plastic consumption. I love your blog! Go Green! Also, I just linked you on my company's intranet site. We have a new Green Action Committee with weekly tips to go green in our home offices.