Un-bottling Our Water Supply

I came across something that made me laugh in the fridge at my local organic coffee shop a few days ago: a new brand of bottled water with a simple label that reads 'another bloody water'. It's amusing because it's all too true: bottled water is everywhere.

I think that sometimes we get caught up in relatively small but emotive environmental issues. In the scale of things, reducing the use of plastic bags, inefficient light bulbs and bottled water isn't going to make as much difference as large-scale changes like shifting to renewable energy generation and taking cars of the road. But the thing is, water bottles, plastic bags, and light bulbs are the type of things we come across every day. And as we've seen with CFL light bulbs, they're the stuff that captures people's attention. So, although it might seem like an insignificant thing to do, how about joining me in an un-bottled water drinking habit?

The Australian Bottled Water Institute (yes, you read that right) yesterday cited AC Neilsen research showing that Australians alone spent $385 million on 250 million litres of bottled water last year. It's always seemed to me that the marketing of water that's often no better quality than tap water for up to 2500 times the price is one of the biggest jokes going. How can bottled water cost more per litre than oil, the main emissions-generating fossil fuel? Clean Up Australia's chairman Ian Kiernan is also grimacing at the joke: "It's one of the greatest cons ever pulled. It's just lunacy, there is no other word for it." But obviously, the con's working, with more and more people buying bottled water around the world and new water brands emerging onto the market (even those like Another Bloody Water who are laughing at the expanding bottled water industry).

So, apart from the inflated price, here's a run down of some of the issues with buying bottled water:

Plastic waste – According to the Australian Conservation Foundation, only 35 percent of water bottles are recycled in Australia, with the rest filling up space for hundreds of years in landfills. In places where plastics are burnt in localised waste management, air quality and human health is often compromised.

Oil use – A huge amount of energy goes into bottling and distributing water to shops and vending machines across the world. But it's not just the bottling process: plastic bottles themselves are made from crude oil. Peter Gleick, president of the Californian-based Pacific Institute, recently calculated that demand for bottles water in the United States is burning up at least 17 million bottles of oil a year. "And that," he says, "doesn't include the energy needed to get the bottled water to your local store." He estimates that the total amount of energy required for every bottle of water is equivalent, on average, to filling a quarter of a plastic bottle with crude oil. The Australian Bottled Water Institute has a similar figure, estimating that the total energy required to bring bottled water to market – converting the PET plastic into bottles, bottling the water, transporting and refrigerating the bottled water – means the amount of oil required is 20 percent of the bottle's volume. Put another way, that's like consuming one litre of crude oil for every five litres of bottled water you drink.

Water use – As well as the water contained in bottles, figures from the Australian Bottled Water Institute show that twice as much water is used in the production process. That represents three litres of water used for every litre of bottled water sold.

Health impacts of plastics – the chemicals used in plastics have been linked (see here, here and here for a starter) with health impacts such as cancers, hormone disruption, immune deficiencies, obesity, miscarriage and lowered fertility. These chemicals become more reactive with water when the plastic becomes scratched, worn or heats up, which is common when bottles designed for a single use are put to ongoing day-to-day use.

Luckily, there are easy alternatives at your fingertips when you find yourself reaching into a shop fridge for another bottle of water:

The tap – Water is handily located at the end of a tap in most houses and work places. If your local water tastes bad you could install a tank to catch rainwater off your roof (often with a government financial subsidy), which tastes great as well as reducing the demand on municipal supply. The cost involved in buying a water filter is also easily repaid by constant use over many years. If you like your water chilled, have a few large capped glass bottles in your fridge that you can drink from at any time. At work, instead of plastic cups at the water cooler, ask your employer to supply glasses that staff can keep on their desks. And when you're out, ask for tap water as opposed to foreign mineral water at your table.

Water treatment – Travelling, local water is often not safe to drink due to water-borne diseases and pollutants. While bottled water is readily available and relatively cheap, it's far better for the local environment if you can take a water purifier with you. Travel doctors and camping stores can advise about the best treatment options available.

Water fountains – Often water is just waiting for you on street corners or at your gym or school. Here in Melbourne, Australia, there's a campaign to get more drinking fountains installed on street corners in a bid to ensure that people don't have to resort to buying bottled water. A drinking fountains map is even available free online for your Melbourne drinking pleasure.

Glass drink bottles – I love drinking from glass. As well as avoiding toxic nasties, I'm sure it tastes better. I bought a bottle of design award-winning Waiwera water in New Zealand over four months ago and have been using it every day since then (with a few washes along the way). Believe it or not, I get compliments on the bottle at least a few times a week.

Re-usable plastic bottles – If you're after a bottle lighter than glass for hiking or sports, there are some grades of plastic that are safer than others. Apparently grades 2, 4 and 5 plastics are safest for re-usable drink bottles. Stainless steel-lined bottles are also a good option.

Re-use and recycle your plastic bottle – Re-use plastic water bottles for as long as you can. Remember though that health wise, once your bottle starts to get scratched or dented, it's time to recycle it.

So, next time you're thirsty, pour yourself a glass of water from the tap. Or pull out your good-looking re-usable water bottle and enjoy your un-bottled drinking habit.


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  • Posted on Aug. 23, 2007. Listed in:

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