Getting down and dirty with bottled water

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In the United States it is estimated that only 10% of plastic bottles are recycled. Meanwhile the bottled water industry has grown into an $8 billion dollar behemoth by selling us something we already have access to, drinking water.

You might think that this would have caused some public uproar by now, after all, the evidence points to a bit of foul play on the part of many companies that sell bottled water. Bottled water has become the wolf in sheep’s clothing purporting itself to be a helpful part of a healthy lifestyle. Pepsi famously created this 60 second add spot to promote their Aquafina brand in which drinking bottled water fills an entire bar with physical health and good feelings. It is true that drinking water is good for your body, but what is not true is the implication that bottled water is any better for you than tap water. Studies have shown that there is no guarantee that bottled water is any safer than tap water. Yet the marketing engines of corporations like Coke and Pepsi have made bottled water synonymous with purity and safety. The end result is that people now believe that tap water is unsafe or impure.

What is even more disturbing is that 40% of bottled water is taken from municipal water sources. Sometimes this water is filtered before being put in bottles, but many companies simply bottle tap water and sell it back to the same community.

And that is just the tip of the iceberg. Nearly every aspect of the bottled water industry has a negative impact on the environment. The softer plastics that make up the majority of bottled water are made from the raw material PET, which comes from petrochemical plants that pollute local groundwater and air supplies.

Not all bottled water comes from municipal sources. Some companies like to hype up the source of their natural spring water to convince us that it is pure and refreshing just the way nature intended it. The problem is that nature did not intend for spring water to be harvested from local groundwater supplies and shipped all over world. This method of water re-distribution has a harmful effect on the local ecology. The Fiji brand of bottled water claims to be bottled at the source, which means if you buy it off your local grocery store shelf it most likely had to travel hundreds or even thousands of miles to get there. Does Fiji water really taste that much better than tap water?

The EPA regulates public water utilities to verify the water that comes from your tap is safe to drink. These regulations are much more strict than the regulation of bottled water performed by the FDA. A common complaint is that tap water has an unusual taste or odor and that it is better to buy bottled water, which presumably tastes better. Public water treatment often involves the use of chlorine or chloramine to remove bacteria so that the water is safe to drink. Many people dislike the aftertaste that chlorine adds to their drinking water. Trace levels of other contaminants can find their way into public drinking water, but this is true of bottled water as well. At least with tap water you know it has been tested and that chemical levels meet federal safety guidelines. Bottled water is not held to the same standards and contaminant testing is performed by the company that sells the water bottles, and they are not required to disclose the results to the public. In this report from the Environmental Working Group you can read more about the lack of contaminant regulation in the bottled water industry.

Filters for drinking water are gaining popularity as the backlash against the bottled water industry gains momentum. The laws of supply and demand tell us that if we stop buying bottled water then companies like Coke, Pepsi, and others will stop producing bottled water in massive quantities. A water filter is an inexpensive solution to remove the poor taste from tap water caused by chlorine treatment. The contaminant reduction claims of most filters have been independently tested so you can be confident that you are drinking water with fewer impurities.

Another great way you can help out the environment is by filling a reusable water bottle for on-the-go use at the gym or around town. I recommend either a plastic bottle that is BPA free, or a stainless steel bottle. Disposable water bottles need to become a thing of the past. If you have not seen it yet, the documentary film Tapped provides an in depth view of the risk that continued bottled water use poses to one of our most basic natural resources, water. I highly recommend it and the film is only an hour or so in length and is available as an instant view on Netflix.