Sunday, 30 January 2011

Bottled Water Blues

Grabbing a quick bottled water when you're on the go seems pretty harmless, and it would be, if you were the only person drinking bottled water and you didn't do it very often. Unfortunately, each person in the United States reached for bottled water 167 times on average in 2006. That adds up to 50 billion bottles. Since only 23% of disposable plastic bottles are recycled, 38 billion disposable plastic bottles end up in landfills each year - 100 million bottles everyday. Laid end to end, there would be enough bottles to reach from New Jersey to China and back each day!
This excessive quantity of plastic waste is bad for the environment because plastic biodegrades very slowly. It takes over 700 years for a plastic bottle to decompose in a landfill. Plastic debris strewn around our lands and waterways poses a persistent threat to wildlife and ecosystems. In fact, plastic pollution has become a world-wide problem. There is a growing "garbage patch" of plastic estimated to be more than twice the size of Texas floating in the North Pacific Ocean. This patch consists of a stew of plastic debris that has been carried by currents from the coasts around the Pacific Basin into a gyre where the currents coalesce. At sea or on land, creatures mistake brightly colored and shiny plastic items for food, and when they eat this debris, it is often deadly.
This staggering quantity of disposable plastic bottles is not just filling up our landfills and cluttering up our lands and waterways, it is also wasting our finite natural resources and increasing our carbon footprint. Picture a disposable plastic water bottle 1/4 full of petroleum. That is how much oil it takes to make and distribute a single plastic bottle of water. The amount of oil we use to produce water bottles, 17 million barrels, could fuel over 1,000,000 cars for an entire year. Furthermore, we are shipping 1 billion water bottles a week around the U.S. in ships, trains, and trucks. One bottle of water also requires at least three times its volume of water to manufacture and fill. This is because it takes a large quantity of water to process petroleum into plastic. Finally, manufacturing and transporting one bottle of water generates about 120 grams of greenhouse gases - enough to fill 12 balloons.
Further environmental harm is caused by collecting the water needed to fill the 50 billion bottles. Communities where bottling companies withdraw millions of gallons of water each day are harassed by tanker trucks rumbling through their small towns 24-7 to keep the bottling plants supplied with water. Local ecosystems are negatively impacted when huge quantities of water are removed entirely from a watershed. These large water withdrawals from aquifers (underground water supplies) or surface water features can reduce stream flow, lower lake levels, decrease local water well productivity, and upset eco-systems such that aquatic plant growth increases and fish stock decreases. In coastal areas, salt water intrusion into aquifers and wells can be accelerated by these large fresh water withdrawals. These communities are fighting the multi-national corporations in local regulatory and other legal arenas to stop these high levels of water withdrawal.
The economic argument against bottled water is equally compelling. Americans spent $15 billion on bottled water in 2006, paying 2 to 4 times the price of gasoline for a product they can get virtually free right out of their taps. Contrary to the abundant marketing messages, tap water is potentially more healthful than bottled water; tap water is more highly regulated and monitored for quality than bottled water. About 40% of bottled water is simply filtered tap water, so why pay 1000 times more for it? Filling a reusable bottle with tap water saves an individual at least $34 per year. A family of four saves at least $136 per year using reusable bottles.
Can we afford to continue wasting our limited natural and economic resources on bottled water? There is an easy solution - fill your reusable bottle with tap water!
The author, Lydia Chambers, is co-founder of Back2Tap, a social business that educates people about the wastefulness of disposable plastic bottles and bags and sells stainless steel bottles andfair-trade organic cotton bags through direct sales and through group fundraising online and in bulk. Graduate of Dartmouth College and the University of Colorado, Lydia is a certified professional geologist who worked for Shell and Exxon in oil field development and contaminated site assessment and remediation. She has lead grassroots environmental campaigns to raise awareness about lawn pesticides, car idling, and bottled water. Currently, Lydia serves on her municipal Planning Board and Open Space Committee.