The Real Costs of Bottled Water

 

By Becca Harber

bigstock Water_Pollution_300There's enough water for human need, but not enough for human greed.

— Ghandi

From California to New York to distant lands, people are taking the extremely destructive effects of bottled water increasingly seriously. New York City has banned bottled water sales in its government workplaces, and San Francisco, Albuquerque, Minneapolis and Seattle have their own similar bans. In 2007, the US Conference of Mayors discussed the contradiction of buying bottled water for city employees and functions while touting municipal water quality. Privatized bottled water companies promote distrust of municipal water as a reason to buy their "purer" products, which contributes to citizens' opposition to needed water infrastructure repairs or replacement.

Bottled water companies take millions of gallons of water per day, often per locale, from public springs, aquifers and other sources, usually without paying anything and despite public opposition. What results is water depletion for the profit of very few. With clean water supplies decreasing worldwide as need skyrockets from soaring populations and climate change-driven drought, this privatization endangers numerous communities and regions, affecting millions. At corporate global water summits, CEOs acknowledge water as the next gold beyond petroleum. People in the non-modernized world are especially aware of this and have been taking action the longest.

Nestle, Coke and Pepsi, the biggest water bottlers world-wide, pump out local people's water, selling it for one thousand plus times the cost of tap water. In 2010, world market value of sold water was $800 billion. Hardly any of this money remains in the communities where the water is sourced. For example, in Fryeberg, Maine, Nestle, without telling the town of their plans, bought land and began pumping for their Poland Springs brand, later refusing to pay even a requested penny per gallon. In 2004, Nestle took over local springs there that had supplied residents for 100 years, leaving the locals to get water elsewhere. They've been trying to get their water back and oust Nestle, but Nestle has enormous resources. In Maine, California and other states, Nestle is battling citizens for legal control of their water.

One rare success story involves a small group of village women in India, aided by global activist Vandana Shiva, who were able to shut down Coca-Cola's plant that was stealing the limited water locals depended on for their survival as small farmers.

Water extraction damages include the drying up of lakes and wetlands, sometimes completely, massive kills of fish and aquatic creatures and loss of public recreation areas. When asked to decrease or halt water extraction during US droughts (when citizens were asked to cut back), Pepsi and Coke refused.

Other destructive effects include the myriad harms of plastic packaging. The production of bottles made with extremely toxic petrochemicals, including PET and BPA (bisphenol A), along with their toxic byproducts, poisons the air of whole communities in the South, causing serious chronic illness, breathing problems and deaths. PET, in the benzene family, is a carcinogen. Birth defects in one refinery's county are 48 percent higher than in the rest of Texas.

Toxic chemicals in bottles leach quickly into bottled water. Even if some bottled water comes from "pure" springs, by the time people drink it, it usually contains numerous chemical contaminants. Absorption is intensified in plastic water bottles that get hot. Reusing plastic bottles (and most other plastic containers) increases chemical leaching into the drink or foods that are put into them.

Bottled water results in vast non-biodegradable plastic garbage pollution, since only 20 percent of the bottles are recycled in the US. This continually affects the natural world, given the constant flow of bottles to landfills. An innumerable amount washes downstream, causing the suffering and deaths of many animals, including birds and turtles, that consume caps and bottle pieces. Photos of the piles of plastic pieces inside dead birds shown in the documentary Bag It are stark.

Bottles create plastic "gyres," thousands of square miles of ocean thick with bits of plastic. One, in the north Pacific, is bigger than Texas. Combined, the gyres equal the size of Africa. Countless fish consume plastic regularly, including many edible species being sold. In 2008, monitored gyre waters had 48 times the amount of plastic in them as plankton, a fundamental food of much sea life. Researchers consider the entire marine food chain at risk.

Corporations promote bottled water as "purer," safer and healthier than tap water, although one-third of bottled water, including the brands Dasani and Aquafina, is actually municipal water. As one Pepsi spokesperson said, "When we're done, tap water will be relegated to showers and cleaning." Leached petrochemicals counter anything good that may be found in the smaller percentage of bottled water that actually comes from quality springs or artesian wells.

Bottled water also has virtually no safety monitoring compared to stringent monitoring of public water. When water is sold in the state where it's bottled, there's no regulation, and companies don't need to test at all. Any testing done is at the discretion of corporations themselves, which aren't required to send results anywhere.

Are there alternatives? Yes. Fill open-mouthed glass jars with tap water and leave them open for 24 hours — almost all chlorine will evaporate out, improving taste, too. Buying home water filters provides better quality water than bottled water, at one-tenth the cost. If you like to carry water with you, use steel or glass bottles.

Bottled Water Facts

• In 2008, Americans consumed 8.6 billion gallons of bottled water. Yet only one part-time FDA staff-person is responsible for bottled water safety nationwide.

• Three times the amount of water is used to make a plastic bottle as the amount that fills the bottle.

• The amount of energy required to make, transport and dispose of a bottle is about a quarter of the bottle's volume of oil.

• Bottled water usually costs more than gasoline.

• In a scientific study of 103 bottled water brands, one-third contained arsenic, bacteria and/or chemicals leached from plastic.

• Colleges or universities that have bottled water bans: Brandeis, Depauw, Seattle, U. of Ontario, U. of Ottawa, U. of Portland, OR, U. of Winnipeg, Washington, Bishop, Belmont and Leeds.

• Students in Take Back the Tap are working to get Cornell to phase out bottled water sales on campus.

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