Recently, in a discussion about bottled water, my colleague stated, “I’ve heard this argument before – it’s the bottle, not the water, that’s the problem. Would these people be happier if the bottle was made from recycled glass?” As one of “these people” who are troubled by bottled water (and in spite of the disparaging remark, my colleague is one of these people, too) the discussion made me think, what is “it” really that’s so problematic about bottled water? Is the bottle really the issue?
The “these people” conversation came in response to reviewing a pretty interesting PowerPoint presentation that made a numerous claims about the environmental consequences of the plastic bottles. A lot of the claims are familiar, but seeing some of those numbers is pretty powerful (17,000,000 barrels of oil used in production of bottles, creating 2,500,000 tons of CO2). I can’t speak to the accuracy of these numbers, but even if they are off by a factor of 2 or 3, it’s still a significant environment problem. Given this, though, there is still the point my colleague made – if you take the bottle out of the equation (i.e., let’s assume you could make some type of storage vessel that had NO negative environmental impact), would people still object to bottled water? Should they?
My sense is yes, and I know I would, but admittedly here we get into murkier territory. Bottled water is often said to contribute to groundwater depletion, yet upon examination this claim is complicated. Realistically, water used for bottling is dwarfed by agricultural and industrial consumption, and in absolute numbers probably has minimal effect on most aquifers. On the other hand, bottled water tends to be very localized, and pull groundwater from a very small area. Even if this isn’t depleting absolute quantities of groundwater, it may have an effect on the immediate area, at least negatively affecting the ecosystem. Another interesting objection to bottled water is that it encourages privatization of something that could much more effectively be a public good. This point, which is articulated very clearly by Elizabeth Royte in Bottlemania wades into some complicated territory, but, I think is, very powerful.
A final point about bottled water is that the industry is s neither regulated, nor, ironically, transparent. Do you really know what you’re getting when you buy a bottle of water? You don’t. Just this past week, it was reported that Safeway, Inc. was buying tap water from the city of Merced, California, bottling it and selling it as its Refreshe brand.
All the points referenced above are complicated and deserve much deeper examination. Royte’s book is a great place to start and I recommend it highly . In the meantime, though, let all of “us people” keep choosing tap over bottled. Even getting rid of that plastic bottle is reason enough.