OneWorld.net, February 5, 2006
Title: “Bottled Water: Nectar of the Frauds?”
Author: Abid Aslam
Faculty Evaluator: Liz Close
Student Researchers: Heidi Miller and Sean Hurley
Consumers spend a collective $100 billion every year on bottled water in the belief—often mistaken—that it is better for us than what flows from our taps. Worldwide, bottled water consumption surged to 41 billion gallons in 2004, up 57 percent since 1999.
“Even in areas where tap water is safe to drink, demand for bottled water is increasing—producing unnecessary garbage and consuming vast quantities of energy,” reports Earth Policy Institute researcher Emily Arnold. Although in much of the world, including Europe and the U.S., more regulations govern the quality of tap water than bottled water, bottled water can cost up to 10,000 times more. At up to $10 per gallon, bottled water costs more than gasoline in the United States.
“There is no question that clean, affordable drinking water is essential to the health of our global community,” Arnold asserts, “But bottled water is not the answer in the developed world, nor does it solve problems for the 1.1 billion people who lack a secure water supply. Improving and expanding existing water treatment and sanitation systems is more likely to provide safe and sustainable sources of water over the long term.” Members of the United Nations have agreed to halve the proportion of people who lack reliable and lasting access to safe drinking water by the year 2015. To meet this goal, they would have to double the $15 billion spent every year on water supply and sanitation. While this amount may seem large, it pales in comparison to the estimated $100 billion spent each year on bottled water.
Tap water comes to us through an energy-efficient infrastructure whereas bottled water is transported long distances—often across national borders—by boat, train, airplane, and truck. This involves burning massive quantities of fossil fuels.
For example, in 2004 alone a Helsinki company shipped 1.4 million bottles of Finnish tap water 2,700 miles to Saudi Arabia. And although 94 percent of the bottled water sold in the U.S. is produced domestically, many Americans import water shipped some 9,000 kilometers from Fiji and other faraway places to satisfy demand for what Arnold terms “chic and exotic bottled water.”
More fossil fuels are used in packaging the water. Most water bottles are made with polyethylene terephthalate, a plastic derived from crude oil. “Making bottles to meet Americans’ demand alone requires more than 1.5 million barrels of oil annually, enough to fuel some 100,000 U.S. cars for a year,” Arnold notes.
Once it has been emptied, the bottle must be dumped. According to the Container Recycling Institute, 86 percent of plastic water bottles used in the United States become garbage or litter. Incinerating used bottles produces toxic byproducts such as chlorine gas and ash containing heavy metals tied to a host of human and animal health problems. Buried water bottles can take up to 1,000 years to biodegrade.
Worldwide, some 2.7 million tons of plastic are used to bottle water each year. Of the bottles deposited for recycling in 2004, the U.S. exported roughly 40 percent to destinations as far away as China, requiring yet more fossil fuel.
Meanwhile, communities where the water originates risk their sources running dry. More than fifty Indian villages have complained of water shortages after bottlers began extracting water for sale under the Coca-Cola Corporation’s Dasani label. Similar problems have been reported in Texas and in the Great Lakes region of North America, where farmers, fishers, and others who depend on water for their livelihoods are suffering from concentrated water extraction as water tables drop quickly.
While Americans consume the most bottled water per capita, some of the fastest collective growth in consumption is in the giant populations of Mexico, India, and China. As a whole, India’s consumption of bottled water increased threefold from 1999 to 2004, while China’s more than doubled.
While private companies’ profits rise from selling bottled water of questionable quality at more than $100 billion per year—more efficiently regulated, waste-free municipal systems could be implemented for distribution of safe drinking water for all the peoples of the world—at a small fraction of the price.
UPDATE BY ABID ASLAM
Consumer stories are a staple of the media diet. This article spawned coverage by numerous public broadcasters and appeared to do the rounds in cyberspace. Perhaps what seized imaginations was our affinity for the subject: apparently we and our planet’s surface are made up mostly of water and without it, we would perish. In any case, most of the discussion of the issues raised by the source—a research paper from a Washington, D.C.–based environmental think tank—focused mainly on consumer elements (the price, taste, and consequences for human health of bottled and tap water), as I had anticipated when I decided to storify the Environmental Policy Institute (EPI) paper (in honesty, that is pretty much all I did, adding minimal context and background). However, a good deal of reader attention also focused on the environmental and regulatory aspects.
Further information on these can be obtained from the EPI, a host of environmental and consumer groups, and from the relevant government agencies: the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for tap water and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for bottled water.
Differences in the ways these regulators (indeed, regulators in general) operate and are structured and funded deserve a great deal more attention, as does the unequal protection of citizens that results.
Numerous other questions raised in the article deserve further examination. Would improved waste disposal and recycling address the researcher’s concerns about resources being consumed to get rid of empty water bottles? If public water systems can deliver a more reliable product to more people at a lower cost, as the EPI paper says, then what are the obstacles to the necessary investment in the U.S. and in poor countries, and how can citizens here and there overcome those obstacles?
Some of these questions may strike general readers or certain media gatekeepers as esoteric. Then again, we all drink the stuff.