Saturday, August 25, 2007

Ditching Bottled Water

Charles Fishman’s article in Fast Company’s July 2007 issue brought to light a lot of new information I didn’t know about bottled water. It was interesting and informative, but more importantly, it was enlightening. Water is an easily available resource in our homes that we’ve come to take for granted. When I was growing up, no one would think twice about drinking tap water. Heck, sometimes I preferred water from the hose! And at some point, it all changed. Tap water was seen as dirty and unhealthy. It almost felt as though you would be doing yourself a disservice to drink it. It seemed everyone was moving towards the bottle or water filter as a remedy to this ill.

Bruce Nevins, who worked at athletic-wear company Pony, started the swinging pendulum in 1976 on the suggestion of Perrier chairman Gustave Leven. “Nevins looked out across 1970s America and had an ephiphany: Perrier wasn't just water. It was a beverage. The opportunity was in persuading people to drink Perrier when they would otherwise have had a cocktail or a Coke.”

Once Perrier opened the door, Evian proceeded to market their still water, which Americans prefer, in plastic bottles. The plastic allowed consumers to see the purity of the water and conveniently toss it when finished. “The Los Angeles Times declared in 1989: ‘The most intriguing [fashion] accessory to come out of the ‘80’s is the Evian water bottle.’”

Fishman’s Facts About Bottled Water:
  • Water weighs 8 1/3 pounds per gallon. It's so heavy you can't fill an 18-wheeler with bottled water - you have to leave empty space.

  • Water bottles are made of totally recyclable polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic: Our recyling rate for PET is only 23%.

  • While the United States is the single biggest consumer in the world's $50 billion bottled-water market, it is the only one of the top four - the others are Brazil, China, and Mexico - that has universally reliable tap water.

  • Whole Foods CEO and co-founder John Mackey defends bottled water, which happens to be their "number-one item by units sold.” He admitted to smuggling bottles of water into movie theatres, but defended them overall. "It's unfair to say bottled water is causing extra plastic in landfills, and it's using energy transporting it. There's a substitution effect-it's substituting for juices and Coke and Pepsi. If bottled water raises environmental and social issues, don't soft drinks raise all those issues, plus obesity concerns.” However, as Fishman points out, soda and juice don’t flow out of our taps.

  • U.S. consumers have easier access to safe, pure Fiji water than most people in Fiji, half of whom do not have reliable drinking water.

  • 1 billion people have no reliable source of drinking water, and 3,000 children a day die from diseases caught from tainted water.
In addition to all of those concerns, the transportation of water is a heavy environmental burden. ABC News calculated that the transportation costs for a one-liter bottle of French water to Chicago is about 2 ounces of oil, not including the oil used to manufacture the bottle. “By contrast, tap water is delivered using little or no oil. New York City's water, for instance, flows by force of gravity.”

Further Pondering

A few more thoughts on the increased consumption of bottled water in the U.S.

Consumerism – Americans like shopping and spending money on things. If something costs more, it must be better. So I'm a better person for buying it, right?

Auto Pilot - We buy the bottles because we've gotten used to the notion that water that we drink comes from a bottle, not a faucet. When I started questioning my preference for bottled water, I had to get past the prejudice that tap does taste different to bottled water. Not better or worse, just different. I've never been a fan of sparkling water, so that wasn't a factor. But I didn’t drink much water overall, so I started questioning the bottle until I started thinking about drinking 8 glasses a day. That's a lot of water, and it's a lot of bottled water. It felt so wasteful that I started drinking tap water. Now I drink tap water from the faucet or the filter (I don’t really mind which).

8 Glasses A Day - The theory that people should drink 8 glasses of water a day hasn't been proven, but I suspect it had a lot to do in generating huge sales increases for water bottling companies. People in other countries don't have the same concept about 8 daily glasses of water, and they're doing just fine. Large glasses and drinks are not the norm elsewhere.

Stopping the Cycle

I remember going to a restaurant as a kid and they would give each person a glass of water before asking. Then, the standard changed so that in order to save water, it would only be served upon request. And before I knew it, the wait staff were asking “still or sparkling” at my request for water. Now, things are getting back to a nice place. It’s becoming less PC to choose the bottled water option in restaurants. In some, if you ask for still water, tap is now the only option. My husband loves this because he no longer has to feel like a leper for order tap; the lepers now order bottled still water ;-)

The environmental concern is really where the water issue gets ugly. We may want to be healthy, and the convenience of the bottle is glorious, but at what cost does it all come? If you make a few conscious decisions, you can help the environment while quenching your thirst:
  • When you eat out, ask for tap water.
  • Who isn’t recylcling those empty bottles? 77% to landfills?!? For goodness’ sake, recycle.
  • Even better, get a reusable bottle and carry it around with you.
  • As Fishman says, “simply asking the question takes the carelessness out of the transaction.”