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Ten Reasons to Avoid Bottled Water

Bottled water has been getting a lot of bad press recently. And though I tend to pity those is unfortunate situations, in this case I say “pile on.” So here they are, ten good reasons to avoid (not purchase, not imbibe) bottled water.

All quotes on this list come from the July 2007 issue of Fast Company, in Charles Fishman’s “Message in a Bottle.” It’s a really great piece, and I would suggest reading the whole thing.

Also, this list is not meant to deny the usefulness of bottled water. When the safety of your water supply is an honest concern, I say you’ve got good reason to drink from sealed bottles. And when you can’t take another swig of the foul water you sometimes find in rural Nebraska, that’s okay too. But if can reasonably avoid the stuff, please do.

  1. Think of the kittens. Every time you break the seal on a bottle of water, God kills a kitten. Please, think of the kittens.
  2. But seriously… It’s not safer or healthier. I sometimes find it difficult to believe that anyone would believe this. Municipal water in the “developed” world is always free of anything we count on nutrition labels. It’s free of vitamins, it’s free of essential minerals, and its free of calories. There is nothing different whether it comes from Fiji, Maine, Los Angeles’s municipal water supply, or your own faucet.
  3. You’re paying too much. Look at it in these simple terms, “If you bought and drank a bottle of Evian, you could refill that bottle once a day for 10 years, 5 months, and 21 days with San Francisco tap water before that water would cost $1.35. Put another way, if the water we use at home cost what even cheap bottled water costs, our monthly water bills would run $9,000.”
  4. You’re creating more waste. Even though water bottles are made with easy to recycle PET, they are often sent to landfills. “Our recycling rate for PET is only 23%, which means we pitch into landfills 38 billion water bottles a year–more than $1 billion worth of plastic.”
  5. Even if you do recycle, you’re still wasting energy to dispose of the bottle. Recycling isn’t free. Citizens pay for it, and they pay because it is not industrially efficient. Cleaning, processing, and reselling the recovered materials is not a cheap process, and it requires energy both from people and from machines. Much more energy than it takes for you to wash your own water bottle.
  6. Transport is waste. Where you have no safe or readily available drinking water, this may be untrue. But for most people who would read this, you’re wasting excess energy to get water of roughly equivalent quality. You can’t ignore the fact that shipping water from Fiji, or anywhere else, uses more energy than using the water that (probably) naturally arrives and is used by your local water utility.
  7. You may well be getting tap water anyway. Both Pepsi and Coca-Cola (or Aquafina and Dasani), sell municipal water back to consumers. Those two alone account for 24% of the bottled water sold in the United States. Municipal water being sold back to you should be good reason to use that water yourself.
  8. It doesn’t even taste better. Though I wouldn’t deny that some people can truly distinguish a difference, “in blind taste tests, with waters at equal temperatures, presented in identical glasses, ordinary people can rarely distinguish between tap water, springwater, and luxury waters.”
  9. You can filter your own. Though you don’t have access to some of the more advanced (and more wasteful) filtering technologies used by the industry, there are many options for filtering your water at home. These will not put it in sealed bottles for you, but they can improve the taste of the water for less cost than a bottle, and with less waste.
  10. You can do better. Says Princeton’s Peter Singer, “we’re completely thoughtless about handing out $1 for this bottle of water, when there are virtually identical alternatives for free. It’s a level of affluence that we just take for granted. What could you do? Put that dollar in a jar on the counter instead, carry a water bottle, and at the end of the month, send all the money to Oxfam or CARE and help someone who has real needs. And you’re no worse off.”

I think Mr. Fishman deserves the last words on this topic:

Packing bottled water in lunch boxes, grabbing a half-liter from the fridge as we dash out the door, piling up half-finished bottles in the car cup holders–that happens because of a fundamental thoughtlessness. It’s only marginally more trouble to have reusable water bottles, cleaned and filled and tucked in the lunch box or the fridge. We just can’t be bothered. And in a world in which 1 billion people have no reliable source of drinking water, and 3,000 children a day die from diseases caught from tainted water, that conspicuous consumption of bottled water that we don’t need seems wasteful, and perhaps cavalier.

That is the sense in which Mackey, the CEO of Whole Foods, and Singer, the Princeton philosopher, are both right. Mackey is right that buying bottled water is a choice, and Singer is right that given the impact it has, the easy substitutes, and the thoughtless spending involved, it’s fair to ask whether it’s always a good choice.

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