The Bottled Water Apocalypse

September 29, 2009 at 1:42 AM | Posted in Environmentally Friendly Living, Health and Fitness, Psychological Wellness | Leave a comment

Recently, bottled water has become a huge issue in the environmental circle. It’s such a big problem that multi-state and national non-profit organizations have been formed to fight it. Let’s talk about reasons why bottled water is bad.

1. Bottled water is bottled. The sheer number of bottles used for water annually is staggering – about 89 billion 1-liter containers worldwide (after you average out the fact that most containers are smaller than 1-liter and some are much larger). The solid waste generated by this many bottles has to go somewhere, and chances are if you’re environmentally irresponsible enough to be drinking large amounts of bottled water, you’re probably also too lazy to recycle. So where does it go? Most of the time, it goes to landfills, but it can end up in other places, too. Let’s have a look.

This incredible amount of debris actually is concealing a river underneath it.  Plastic bottles contribute hugely to this sort of thing, and they dont decompose.

This incredible amount of debris actually is concealing a river underneath it. Plastic bottles contribute hugely to this sort of thing, and they don't decompose.

The problem is much worse on the coasts. You may have heard of the pacific trash vortex. Just to prove it’s not a myth, here’s a Wikipedia article that explains exactly how it happens: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Pacific_Garbage_Patch. But you didn’t click that link, much less read it, so here’s a summary: Wind and water movement in the Pacific Ocean is driven by temperature differences. In the Pacific, there’s a sort of circular wind that tends to move things to the middle. Now, we have a MASSIVE garbage patch in the middle of the ocean, roughly the size of Texas and still growing. A study done by the History Channel indicated that the trash patch would continue to grow in size well past 50 years from now if humans simply “vaporized” off the earth and trash production stopped. Here’s a picture.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch.  And you thought I was joking.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. And you thought I was joking.

To top it all off, bottle production uses a lot of oil in creating the plastic. This adds to our oil consumption problem, which even the most in-denial, conservative views can’t ignore.

2. Bottles are not usually safe for humans. Bottles that hold water usually contain a number of chemicals that are able to leach off into the water and enter our bodies, causing harm and cancer (this is not just speculation anymore. A number of studies have confirmed cancer caused by BPA). While BPA is a well-known problem (or maybe it isn’t since so many people simply continue to use bottles), there’s another huge problem that has been identified: xenohormones. Don’t let the length of the word intimidate you. Xenohormones are chemicals, man-made, that function as hormones in the body. In particular, many plastics contain one that acts like estrogen. This is not good news for men. If you’re doubting me, here’s a bit of evidence for you: http://www.upi.com/Health_News/2009/03/27/Estrogenic-chemicals-in-bottled-water/UPI-85521238211685/. More exists if you really want to be proven wrong.

It IS possible to get plastic bottles that don’t leach BPA or xenohormones, but you’ll pay a pretty penny for them (and they aren’t always so easy to find). Furthermore, you can bet that water bottling giants like Nestle Water, Aquafina and Evian sure aren’t bothering with the quality of their water bottles.

These bottles are certified BPA-Free.  No indication as to whether or not they are free of xenohormones.  The cost?  $8.99 per bottle, before shipping.

These bottles are certified BPA-Free. No indication as to whether or not they are free of xenohormones. The cost? $8.99 per bottle, before shipping.

3. Bottled water must be moved. I don’t know if you noticed or not, but water is kind of heavy. You can imagine, then, that lugging around a truck full of water wouldn’t get the best mileage – and you’d be right. Not only does it take a pretty high amount of fuel to transport bottled water, but it’s unnecessary! I’ll talk more about this later. However, it suffices to say for now that you, as a bottled water consumer, will pay significantly more for your water if it had to be transported a long distance. The bottled water company has to cover the cost of transporting the water. That means paying for fuel and trucks, yes, but also paying people to drive them, paying people to manage the fleet from some remote location and paying people to load and unload the water. Pretty expensive.

4. The laws existing that regulate where, how and what it costs for water bottling companies to operate are either nonexistent or unenforced. Usually, they don’t prohibit bottling companies from doing things that simply aren’t right. What am I talking about? I ran across this article very recently: http://www.treehugger.com/files/2009/09/bottled-water-giant-nestle-coming-to-most-threatened-river-delta-in-america.php?dcitc=th_rss. Since you didn’t click on that link either, it’s a story about how Nestle Water bought out water rights to the most threatened river delta in the United States. Nestle plans to build a bottling plant that will siphon water from the delta at no limit (besides the size of its pumps and pipes). Elsewhere, numerous smaller communities have had their water rights bought out (sometimes against their will) by bottled water giants, and the local environment and community suffered greatly for it.  You can read what the corporate bosses think here:

http://seekingalpha.com/article/24410-t-boone-pickens-invests-in-water-should-you.

But this whole thing warrants a discussion of water rights. What exactly are water rights anyhow? There are two systems.

Riparian Water Rights: Anyone owning land adjacent to a stream, lake or river can use the water at no limitation. This system works reasonably well in places with a lot of precipitation and a lot of surface water. These are places like the east coast of the United States and a lot of western Europe.

Appropriations Doctrine: In the western US, where water is much less common, water rights are given by appropriations. If, for example, there is a river with 3 people owning land nearby, the water is given on a first-come first-serve basis. Farmer Jones in 1920 appropriated 100 cubic feet of the river for himself. Then, in 1940, Farmer Terry appropriated 100 cubic feet for himself as well. Farmer Lee came along in 1960 and appropriated 100 cubic feet of the river. As long as there’s more than 300 cubic feet of water in the river every year, everybody gets their water. But, if only 200 cubic feet come in a drought one year, farmer Lee gives up his 100 cubic feet and the other two get theirs. This is how the appropriations doctrine works (notice that there was no water left for the fish or other animals – this has been the practice for many years).

The appropriations doctrine has been the system of choice in most of the United States since it was settled. In this way, a person’s appropriations were worth money. If you were farmer Lee and you needed your water, but farmer Terry didn’t, you could buy his water for the year. Farmer Terry could make quite a nice profit during years of drought then, couldn’t he? This has been what has been happening ALL OVER the United States with bottled water giants.

Here’s an example. In Sacramento, the city sold water rights to Nestle. Nestle bought it on its own terms, having enough money from previous plunders to do so. Sacramento got a nice profit from the deal, and Nestle will make even more money on the water, but that’s where the fun stops. The people of Sacramento will now face higher municipal water prices (if not now, then in the future), potential dewatering of the river delta (which would mean no one gets any water) and a significantly lower quality of environment surrounding the delta.

The Sacramento River Delta is the most threatened river delta in the United States.

The Sacramento River Delta is the most threatened river delta in the United States.

The trouble with this is that not many people understand how much harm a bottled water company can really do. It’s also not usually a public event when a deal to sell water rights is made (surprised? I hope not.). Most of the time, water rights deals to bottled water companies are made quickly and quietly, with the hope of drawing as little attention as possible. Why? Because they know that most common sense would suggest that the deal is bullshit. But that’s not the end. What about the future?

Bottled water companies have bought up a significant amount of the water rights currently in existence. This is a bold claim, to be sure, and I haven’t the hard research to support it at the moment. However, these people did do the research. At any rate, let me ask you this: does it seem like a good idea to you, a consumer with limited purchasing power that depends highly upon your ability to hold a job at all times, to have most of the rights to water held by massive ultra-mega corporations? Before you answer, let me say this: it’s easy for you to say no, and it’s easy for you to write a blog article and go around preaching to everyone that bottled water is bad, but what are you drinking?

Although this is a dim future, there IS something you can do. There are a number of water rights activist groups, all non-profit, whose existence is dedicated to keeping water rights in the hands of municipalities responsible to its citizens (unlike Sacramento, apparently). These groups also promote awareness and work against the corporate tide of private ownership of water resources. I think you’d agree with me when I say that water is absolutely vital to EVERY form of life on the planet, and it wouldn’t be good if it were owned by just a few of us.

Do a Google search to find these groups. I could list a million of them here, but it’s pointless since the groups vary by location and are largely local (as they should be). Here’s an example of one though: http://www.saveourwatersacramento.org/. This group is dedicated to removing Nestle from Sacramento. Other places are doing the right thing, too. Flagstaff in Arizona prevented Nestle from setting up shop there by denying them the water rights. In Australia, the first town in the world is going zero bottled water. They’ve set up alternatives: fountains that can fill you reusable bottle, mitigation efforts designed to take the edge off of revenue loss from bottled water sales, and a higher quality of treatment for water available through the common treatment plant.  You can read about that story here: http://rawstory.com/2009/09/australian-town-bans-bottled-water/.

There’s also another thing you can do. It’s even easier than getting involved with an activist group, and it requires no effort at all: STOP BUYING BOTTLED WATER. Before I ask you to do that, however, let me dispel a few myths about bottled water.

  • Bottled water is safer.  This is an outright lie.  I am a water resources engineer, and I know EXACTLY what strict requirements for treatment are set upon municipalities that provide tap water to residents.  If you don’t want to believe me, believe the thousands of tests that have been performed by microbiologists, chemists and engineers to compare tap water and bottled water.  The fact that bottled water is healthier for you is a lie that has been fed to you by the corporations that bottle the water – of course they want you to think it’s better for you, otherwise you wouldn’t buy it since it costs literally 2500 times as much (I’ll prove this later for you skeptics).  In FACT, bottled water might be LESS healthy for you when you consider all of the chemicals in plastics that leach off into the water.  Besides that, no water is free of carbonic acid: carbon dioxide enters the water and reacts to form carbonic acid.  You can’t avoid this, as simply exposing it to air causes this transformation.
  • Bottled water is cleaner.  This is also a myth.  Municipalities are required by law to treat their water so that the turbidity (“dirtiness,” if you will) registers no more than 1 on the turbidimeter (an instrument that measures how clean a water sample is: this test is standardized).  Most bottled water is treated to this same exact standard.  If you consider it, actually, the fact that city water comes through the tap at no more than 1 on the turbidimeter is absolutely amazing because it travels through plumbing to get there – something bottled water doesn’t have to overcome.  If anything, this fact should indicate to you that the supply lines the city owns and maintains are of extremely high quality – it’s not a fucking sewer (one ignorant statement ABC got from a NYC resident was “I think tap water kind of tastes like sewer.” – go here for that fun story).
  • Bottled water is safer.  Once again, I can point to a significant body of laboratory test results that completely pwns this claim.  Bottled water is no safer than tap water.  Even in places with a freaking well underground, the tap water is still just as safe as the bottled water.  And in terms of what happens inside your body, if you really did drink pure, deionizied, demineralized, 100% H2O, you would be robbing your body of electrolytes.  It is a well-known scientific fact that pure water flushes out essential minerals like sodium, potassium and calcium.

This leaves one big problem.  Taste.  A lot of the avid bottled water drinkers that I know claim it tastes way better than tap water.  I personally notice no difference at all, but since so many people do notice, there must be some validity to the claim.  I therefore propose an alternative approach to bottled water: filters at home.  There are only a gazillion in-home filters available for purchase that can greatly enhance the flavor and quality of your water.  There are pitchers that filter water on a small scale by reverse osmosis, which is about the best water treatment known to man.

This is a reverse osmosis filter in a pitcher.  You pour water in at the top, purified water seeps through at the bottom.  Reverse osmosis is the BEST form of water treatment available.  It does take a long time to seep through, however.  Put this in the fridge, let it seep through and youve got pure, cold water.

This is a reverse osmosis filter in a pitcher. You pour water in at the top, purified water seeps through at the bottom. Reverse osmosis is the BEST form of water treatment available. It does take a long time to seep through, however. Put this in the fridge, let it seep through and you've got pure, cold water.

The downside is that it takes a long time to process the water.  If you’re looking for something a little faster, charcoal filters work well.  These can be attached to your faucet head, fridge water supply or just about any other supply you can think of.  If you’re worried about wasting your filter on washing dishes, they even make filters with switches that turn filter flow on or off, allowing you to save filter life.

This Brita filter is very high quality and churns out filtered water at the same rate your tap can deliver it, so no waiting.  These are often used in refrigerator filters as well.  Note the switch to turn the filter on or off, saving filter life.

This Brita filter is very high quality and churns out filtered water at the same rate your tap can deliver it, so no waiting. These are often used in refrigerator filters as well. Note the switch to turn the filter on or off, saving filter life.

Filters like this also exist, where the body of the filter is a standalone unit.  These are nice if you dont want a huge filter cluttering up your faucet.  They are also switched on and off.

Filters like this also exist, where the body of the filter is a standalone unit. These are nice if you don't want a huge filter cluttering up your faucet. They are also switched on and off.

It is true that these units cost roughly $20-40, or more if you want a supremely nice filter, but they all do the same thing.  And when you consider how many gallons you’ll be getting out of just one filter, the cost of your treated water is well below $5/gallon, which is what you pay for bottled water.  Also consider that the filters are replaceable, so you need not replace the entire unit.  Another cool thing is that the filters are biodegradable – charcoal and minerals.  This beats the hell out of discarded plastic bottles.

If you’re worried about convenience, then let me say to that what I always say: a tiny amount of planning relegates the need for convenience to a manageable level (read: plan ahead and you won’t need to buy a ton of bottled water all the time).

And just think: you didn’t need to feed corporate dollars into the money pit to get your nice water, and you won’t be contributing to the massive, Texas-sized garbage patch floating on the surface of our only Pacific Ocean.

Earlier, I promised I’d prove that bottled water was ludicrously expensive.  Let me demonstrate now.

Municipal (city-treated) water costs you $1.5/1000 gallons, or about 0.2 cents per gallon (if you don’t believe me, check out your next water bill).  Bottled water averages roughly $5/gallon.  Take the ratio: 5/0.002 = 2500!  That means you pay 2500 times for a gallon of bottled water what you would a gallon of tap water.

So now I hope you can see why bottled water is bad.  It isn’t any cleaner or safer than tap water, it costs you 2500 times as much to buy, it has to be transported around by trucks, diesel, and the like, it comes in freaking BOTTLES, and the bottles are bad for your health.  To top it off, the number of alternatives you have is overwhelming: tap water, in-home filters, in-home filtering systems right at the source (say a large semi-permeable membrane in the basement), reusable water bottles, the list goes on.  If you are buying bottled water in huge quantities, not only are you probably not getting enough water, but you’re doing all of us a disservice by supporting the corporations who are out to own the world (and you, and me, and that bunny out by the window) and destroying it at the same time.

I’ll leave you with a neat little ad for the city of Toronto.  It gets the point across well enough.

Stop being pro-Armageddon and stop supporting bottled water.

Stop being pro-Armageddon and stop supporting bottled water.

And if you think I’m out of line with all of this, check this out!

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