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From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine
The Bottled Water Backlash
Bottled water’s days are numbered
Editor’s note: In lieu of a Q & A column this week, here’s an excerpt from E Magazine’s current issue.
Bottled water is out, and tap water is in. Call it reverse snob appeal. These days, it’s the tap water enthusiasts, concerned about the environment, who get to act self righteous. Just as it has become cool to bring your own cloth bags to the grocery store and your own mug to the coffee shop, the reusable water bottle is the hip, new eco-accessory.
In Canada, the bottled-water issue has reached the level of an uprising. College students are staging protests, declaring bottled-water free zones on campus. High school activists are raising questions about why their school board members are locking them into a contract with Coke or Pepsi (makers of Aquafina and Dasani bottled water) when they have access to drinking fountains for free. Some of the students have jokingly started selling bottled air for $1.
“This movement is gaining momentum,” says Richard Girard, a corporate researcher for the Ottawa-based Polaris Institute, “because the general public is starting to figure out bottled water is a scam.”
Bottled water is also contributing to huge amounts of waste and energy consumption. It takes 15 million barrels of oil per year to make all of the plastic water bottles in America, according to the Container Recycling Institute. Sending those bottles by air and truck uses even more fossil fuel. Once people drain the bottles, they rarely recycle them because they’re often purchased at big concert venues or airports with no recycling bins. The Container Recycling Institute says eight out of 10 water bottles end up in the landfill and that it takes 1,000 years for plastic bottles to break down.
The bottles that drift from landfills or end up as litter in streams are washing out to sea to form a huge raft of plastic debris in the center of the Pacific that is estimated to be twice the size of Texas.
Don’t Refill the Bottle!
Consumers aren’t advised to reuse store-bought bottled water or even plastic bottles made for refilling due to dangers of leaching chemicals. Research shows that clear bottles made of polycarbonate plastic (such as the original 32-ounce Nalgene) can leach bisphenol-A (BPA), an endocrine disrupting chemical that acts like estrogen in the body. Since BPA has been linked to low sperm counts and an increased risk of breast and prostate cancer, scientists suggest avoiding reusable bottles made from plastic.
They also raise serious concerns about the potential for other plastic chemicals to leach out of typical PET water bottles, especially if they sit in the hot sun.
Some of the best refillable bottle options come from the stainless guaranteed-not-to-leach SIGG bottles made in Switzerland. The trend away from bottled water may also boost sales of home filters. Water quality experts say most tap water is fine to drink straight from the faucet especially in cities like San Francisco, Seattle, New York City and Denver, where water comes from pristine mountain reservoirs.
Turning Back to Tap
It makes sense for anyone turning back to tap to become educated about the local public water supply. Since the Environmental Protection Agency requires frequent water quality reports, the data is easy to find. The Environmental Working Group makes it easy with its Tap Water Database. You can plug in your zip code and find out whether your local water system is up to par.
Now that more people are trying kick the bottled water habit, groups like Natural Resources Defense Council and Environmental Working Group hope this new awareness will translate into more support for public water supplies and for water conservation in general.
For more information:
• May/June 2008 cover story of E The Environmental Magazine, now posted at: www.emagazine.com.
• Sigg Bottles: www.swissbottle.com/.
• Environmental Working Group’s Tap Water Database: www.ewg.org/tapwater/.
Got an environmental question? Send it to: EarthTalk, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; submit it at www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/thisweek: or e-mail [email protected]. Read past columns at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/archives.php.