Environmental Defense Fund: Bottles, Bottles, Everywhere…

This post is by Ramon Cruz, Senior Policy Analyst for Living Cities at Environmental Defense Fund.

It’s ironic. In many parts of the world, there is no clean drinking water. Here in the U.S., pure, drinkable water flows out of every tap, and yet Americans buy a staggering amount of bottled water. We pay big bucks for it, too – over $15 billion a year.

Worst of all, the bottles are overflowing our landfills, and contribute to global warming.

Take a look at this video from Doug James, and then check out these surprising facts.

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More than a quarter of bottled water is just processed tap water, including Pepsi’s Aquafina and Coca-Cola’s Dasani. Despite this, bottled water consumption is growing at 10 percent a year, faster than any other beverage. We drink 15 times more bottled water today than we did in 1976.

This doesn’t mean we’re healthier, despite the ads. Federal regulations for municipal water are far more stringent. Bottled water rules allow higher levels of many contaminants, with more lenient requirements for filtration, testing and reporting. See NRDC’s bottled water report for details of contaminants by brand.

The Earth isn’t healthier for it, either. According to the Pacific Institute’s fact sheet [PDF], manufacturing the 30+ billion plastic water bottles we bought in 2006:

  • Required the equivalent of more than 17 million barrels of oil — enough to fuel more than one million vehicles for a year. (Note: This was erroneously reported by The New York Times as 1.5 million, and the error is repeated in many places.)
  • Produced more than 2.5 million tons of carbon dioxide.
  • Used three times the amount of water in the bottle.

And these numbers don’t include transporting the bottles. Nearly 25 percent of bottled water crosses national borders before reaching consumers. Adding in transportation, the energy used comes to over 50 million barrels of oil equivalent – enough to run 3 million cars for a year.

Case Study: Fiji Water

Fiji Water produces more than a million bottles of water a day, while more than half the people in Fiji do not have reliable drinking water (see Fast Company article). Adding to the irony, Fiji itself uses almost no bottled water, according to a Pacific Institute report [PDF]. They export it.

Shipping Fiji Water around the world increases its environmental footprint. Manufacturing and shipping a one liter bottle produces over half a pound of greenhouse gas emissions, and uses nearly 7 times the amount of water in the bottle, according to calculations by Pablo Päster on TriplePundit.

The heavy use of water is as serious as the greenhouse gas emissions. Water is fast becoming a scarce resource.

We Could Recycle, But…

Recycling would help, but we don’t usually do it. Less than 20 percent of the 28 billion single-serving water bottles that Americans buy each year are recycled. Some estimates are as low as 12 percent.

According to a Container Recycling Institute report [PDF], the national recycling rate for all beverage containers is 33 percent. In states with deposit systems, the rate jumps to 65-95 percent. But of the eleven states with deposit laws, only three include containers for non-carbonated beverages (like water), though non-carbonated beverages now comprise 27 percent of the market.

Last November, Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) introduced a national bottle bill to address global warming that includes water bottles and other non-carbonated beverage containers.

The beverage industry, which long resisted deposit laws, has started to cooperate — mainly because it sees bottled water as the answer to the soda sales slump. Following months of bad publicity, manufacturers like Coke, Pepsi, and Nestlé have begun making lighter-weight plastic bottles, and are encouraging consumers to recycle.

Better Yet, Carry Tap Water

If you buy bottled water, recycle the bottle. But the better solution — for you and the environment — is to drink tap water, both at home and at restaurants:

  • Tap water is cleaner than most bottled water.
  • Tap water is delivered to homes and offices for $0.002 a gallon. Bottled water, which can cost as much per gallon as gasoline, is a thousand times more expensive.

The quality of municipal water in the U.S. is generally excellent. Don’t let the recent reports about pharmaceuticals in tap water deter you — see this TreeHugger post for why.

But if you don’t trust tap water, or you have old plumbing, or you think tap water tastes funny, then try a water filter like those from PUR or Brita. To learn more about water filters, check out the rated list of water filter review sites at Consumer Search.

To carry water with you, use a reusable container filled with tap water. But don’t reuse single-use water bottles. This can expose you to bacterial build-up and carcinogens leached from the plastic.

Quite a few companies make reusable water bottles. There’s an ongoing debate about the safety of the polycarbonate plastic some use, but there are many safe reusable bottles made from other materials.

Use it or Lose it

National Geographic‘s Green Guide notes, “…the federal share of funding for water systems has declined from 78 percent in 1973 to 3 percent today.” This places the financial burden almost entirely on local governments.

Food and Water Watch also talks about how important it is to stop this trend and maintain the quality of municipal water. Their Take Back the Tap [PDF] report gives a detailed overview of the issues surrounding tap water versus bottled water.

What do you think? Can you give up bottled water?

  1. Aaron Wheeler

    With the Tribewanted project in Fiji, we’ve had to learn to be reliant on collecting and filtering rain water as our primary source of water. Knowing where the water comes from and learning first hand about water conservation is definitely something that all Tribe members take home with them. Ironically, it’s not uncommon for empty bottles of “artesian” Fiji Water to wash up on the shores of our island Vorovoro, having been washed down the river where the empties get thrown.

  2. Meep

    I’m going to have to disagree with the claim that everyone in the US has good tap water. It varies by municipality. I lived in a town that regularly had tap water problems, and boiling your water for a week or two did not raise an eye. Not that the residents were unconcerned, but most of the changes that the water department wanted to make got squashed amongst other political problems.

    A Brita won’t take the chlorine or e. coli out.

  3. urbanmike

    I work in a city that has almost banned plastic bags, and is located in the beautiful mountains of British Columbia. A local retailer has just started stocking Fiji Water. I was shocked to see a product from half way around the globe being sold in an area with one of the best water supplies in the world!

    The economic and environmental model that allows this to be an acceptable reality is out of whack.

  4. Sara

    Thank you for delving into this important issue. There really is a growing consciousness about the consequences of bottled water consumption on the environment – and on our wallets! Unfortunately, it seems like the more money we spend on bottled water, the less political will exists to properly fund municipal water systems.

    A group called Corporate Accountability International (www.StopCorporateAbuse.org)is organizing not only individuals but restaurants, faith groups, and city officials as they buck the bottled water trend in favor of tap water.

    The campaign, dubbed “Think Outside the Bottle,” is also pressuring the bottled water industry to reveal the sources and sites of the water used for bottling, publicly report breaches in bottled water quality (comparable to reports by public water systems)and stop threatening local control of water when siting and operating bottled water plants.

    Check out http://www.ThinkOutsideTheBottle.org for more information or to sign the tap water pledge!

  5. Beth aka Fake Plastic Fish

    It’s great to give up plastic water bottles and opt for tap water. And filtering that water is sometimes necessary. The number 1 water filter in North America is Brita, which consists of a plastic cartridge that must be landfilled or incinerated every few months.

    In Europe, Brita cartridges are collected and recycled. Please sign the petition and join the new Take Back The Filter Campaign (http://www.takebackthefilter.org) to urge Clorox, the company that makes Brita filters in North America, to take responsibility for the millions of plastic filter cartridges disposed of each year!

  6. Julia Girdler

    There are inexpensive water filters that you can buy to filter out the chlorine and other contaminants. I believe that “disposables” can be useful in situations where fresh water isn’t available, but for those of us in the country that have access to great water, it just doesn’t add up. If we can cut our usage in half, we will have saved about 8 million barrels of oil and who knows how much water per year! (It takes three liters of water to produce a one liter bottle.) It’s all about common sense, don’t you think?

  7. x1134x

    Municipal water tastes like crap, or a swimming pool, or both. This crappy pool water still tastes like crap when put through a brita filter, and then also tastes like the carbon from the filters. (I know this because I’ve tried it.) The reason bottled water sells is because its taste is palatable, unless your taste buds are horribly insensitive, (like you think lettuce tastes like nothing – it really tastes like grass).

    I agree with the premise, that we have “GOOD” water at the tap, but that definition of “good” is “it won’t kill you if you can stand drinking it” If we put some effort into actually delivering GOOD tasting water to taps, the problem would probably fix itself because of the economic issues previously mentioned.

    If Dasani, etc are simply processed tap water, then municipalities should adopt their method of filtration/preparation.

    I’ll switch back to tap water when it doesn’t taste like ditch water.

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