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Water at $10 a Gallon

April 25, 2011 By Brianna Besch, Guest Commentary

This is the fifth of an eight-part series on environmental policy in conjunction with Macalester College's Environmental Studies Department.

Americans are addicted to bottled water. What we used to get though a state-of-the-art nationwide water supply infrastructure we now consume in over half a billion single use plastic bottles a week.

Some bottled waters cost more than $10 a gallon—significantly higher than gas, and as much as 100,000 times as expensive as tap water. This addiction is not only draining our pockets but deteriorating our health, polluting our environment and jeopardizing our basic human right to accessible, affordable and safe drinking water.

Many people purchase bottled water because they believe it’s healthier and cleaner. While pictures of pristine mountains and bubbling springs imply purity, 40 percent of bottled waters are sourced directly from ‘municipal sources’—the tap, according to several sources, including the Drinking Water Resource Foundation.

The Food and Drug Administration, which regulates bottled water, has roughly one staff person who ensures that bottled water companies across the country comply with federal regulations. The FDA requires only weekly quality tests, which can be done by the manufacturer with no independent oversight. Bottled water companies are not required to submit these quality reports for review by the FDA, even if health standards are violated.

The Natural Resource Defense Council conducted three independent lab tests of 103 bottled water brands. It found a third violated state or industry guidelines for at least one contaminate level. While not all tap water meets public safety standards 100% of the time, tests are run daily by certified laboratories. Municipal suppliers are also required to publish monthly reports on what’s in your water, and notify all consumers within 24 hours if standards are violated.

In addition to supply lines’ lax oversight, there are concerns with the actual bottles. Most single-use bottles are made from PET plastic, which may also pose health risks once water is bottled.

While PET plastic is generally inert, there is some concern that it can leach potentially harmful chemicals into water, including phthalates and antimony which are hormone disrupters. This leaching potentially increases as PET is heated, even to temperatures easily reachable inside a dishwasher or a car parked in the sun. Furthermore, when these porous plastic bottles are reused, the moist environment harbors bacterial growth, which can be harmful and is almost impossible to kill. However, more research is needed to attribute definitive effects.

Few realize how energy-intensive it is to produce, transport and dispose of bottled water. According to the Pacific Institute, a non-profit research council, it requires 17 million barrels of oil to produce the plastic for bottled water consumed in the United States; enough oil to fuel 1 million cars. When you factor in transportation and disposal, the total energy required by a single bottle of water can be equivalent to filling the bottled ¼ full of oil.

The Government Accountability Office found that 76.5% of plastic water bottles in the U.S. are thrown away. Other bottles are incinerated and release harmful chemicals into the air. While recycling is better than throwing bottles away, it’s often Minnesota taxpayers and local businesses that fund curbside recycling programs, not the companies profiting from bottled water sales. Furthermore, the waste problem isn’t solved by recycling. ‘Recycled’ bottles are actually ‘down cycled’: turned into lower quality products.

One of the worst aspects of the $10 billion bottled water industry is its detrimental effects on the municipal water system. The United Nations has declared access to safe and affordable water a basic human right. But, because more people are consuming bottled water, states have less revenue to upkeep their municipal supply, which may lead to deteriorating quality of public water.

While bottled water may be useful during natural disasters or emergencies, we choose to consume water from single-use bottles over our taps every day. It’s like choosing to power your home with disposable batteries instead of connecting to the grid.

Some people argue that there is no substitute for the convenience of bottled water, but do we really need a bottle by our side every minute? Are taps with potable water in every bathroom not enough? Is it really that hard to remember a safe, reusable bottle?

Minnesotans and Americans need to be weaned from our bottled water addiction. Policymakers need to make it clear that our municipal supplies are safe. We need to lobby for more public drinking fountains and limit bottled water in schools and workplaces. We should show support for a Minnesota bottle bill; bottle bills place a five or 10 cent tax on plastic drink containers, which is returned to the consumer when recycled. States with bottle bills have recycling rates as high as 97%, and revenue from the program takes the burden of recycling off the public.

Here’s the bottom line, we cannot afford to pay $10 a gallon for water we can get from our tap almost for free.

Brianna Besch is a Macalester College Environmental Studies Major.

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  • Jim Ruen says:

    April 26, 2011 at 9:46 am

    Why is it that buying water in a bottle at $10 a gallon is so often described as foolhardy or worse, not to mention environmentally despicable. These same critics ignore sodas and energy drinks which are not only more expensive, but unhealthy as well.

    I buy bottled water when I am away from home. No, I don’t want to drink from the restroom tap and when is the last time you saw a drinking fountain anywhere? Of course, I suppose I could go into restaurants and ask for a glass of water though I have no intention of buying any food. Certainly there bottom lines could handle diverse people walking in off the street and dirtying glasses for no return.

    I suppose I could bring a bottle of water from home, but I like the idea of cold water out of a cooler.

    Then there is the concern over plastics off gassing into the water. Not a problem with soda or baked beans out of a can, right? Just the added salt in the beans combined with the plastic lining makes my water a healthy delight.

    I don’t like the idea of all the plastic going into our environment any more than anyone else does. I just get sick of water being the bad guy because we can get it out of the kitchen faucet (which is where I get it when I’m at home.)

    Let’s look at the totality here. If you don’t like plastic bottles, go after all of them. If we all drank bottled water instead of soda and other flavored drinks, perhaps we wouldn’t be eating 156 lbs of sugar a year (U.S. per capita).

  • Lois says:

    April 28, 2011 at 1:43 pm

    You make some good points.  A bottle bill would cover all beverage containers, including those for soda. 

    The reason we focus on bottled water so much is that the ratio between energy required to get it to you and energy content in the water (zero) is uncalculable.  With sodas at least there’s a little energy content to make the ratio more reasonable.  Of course, I say this as someone who appreciates that calories—in the right quantity—are necessary for life.  Of course, there are far more efficient and healthy ways to deliver calories than through sodas.  I myself eschew all flavored drinks.

    You say you don’t want to carry your own water because you like to drink cold water.  No problem.  How about a thermos jug?  When I was a kid in a tropical country all of my school mates brought thermos jugs of cold beverages to school.  Those who couldn’t afford the expensive insulated ones would put a jug in the freezer overnight and drink the water as it melted.

  • Radheshyam says:

    April 13, 2012 at 5:27 pm

    Actually for the bridge thing I would say it was more retelad to the good luck and the fact that all the bridge came down all together so the people who were in the center of the bridge they landed! on the bridge again. It is true that police was there a minute after the accident but you should note that there are always many police cars at that area and the closest Hospital (U of M Hospital) is a minute from the place.I really do not like to consider this accident as a credit to the system, just because this happened and they could not see that in advance! The funny thing is I saw a couple of people the day of accident inspecting something behind that bridge and the other bridge which is very close to that and you can see it in the photos! I wish they were not testing the bridge!!