Bottled Water Part I: The true cost
When it comes to profligacy concerning natural resources, humans are guilty of a long list of environmental extravagances. Bottled water, Iâ€™m sure, ranks pretty high on the list.
In an era where we need to particularly conscious of our use of oil and water, and work hard towards reducing global warming, the innocuous looking plastic water bottle has become an ubiquitous symbol of the kind of things we as a human race should precisely not be doing.
We are slurping up bottled water at an astonishing pace. The volume of global consumption at 41 billion gallons in 2004 represents a doubling of volumes in 5 years. The US consumes a lionâ€™s share of the market, but countries such as India and China are catching up. Much of this is due to an enormous marketing myth and our own notion that bottled water, is somehow is purer and healthier, and that tap water is simply not safe or clean enough.
Is your bottled water safer than tap water?
Many scientific tests show that bottle water is no better than tap water. If you feel that bottle water tastes better, itâ€™s possibly because thereâ€™s some chemicals added to make it taste better, or youâ€™re just buying into the marketing hype.
Tap water goes through several rounds of stringent checks, especially in more developed parts of the world. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the US, for example, subjects tap water to hundreds of tests every month, whereas only one test a week is done on bottled water. And only 40% of bottled water in the US is regulated by the FDA anyway.
In fact, the Environmental Law Foundation in the US sued eight bottled water manufacturers for using words such as “pure” to market water that contained bacteria, arsenic and chlorine. Environmental regulations may be far less stringent in developing countries for bottled water.
Watch this ABC News video on Bottled vs Tap Water, which compares bottled and tap water.
What is the true cost of bottled water?
According to Food and Water Watch, the average cost of one gallon of tap water is only $0.002 per gallon, whereas the price of commercial bottled water ranges from $0.89 to $8.26 per gallon, thatâ€™s about 400 to 4000 times more than tap water! 90% of bottleâ€™s price goes for bottling, packaging, shipping, marketing, retailing and profit, anyway.
A possible health hazard comes from the extensive use of phthalates (plastic softening chemicals) and other synthetic chemicals such as Bisphenol A in the bottle production which may leach into the water stored in the bottles.
Itâ€™s not just consumers who are paying a huge premium,Â so does the environment.
According to the Container Recycling Institute:
- Globally, bottled water accounts for 1.5 millions tons of plastic waste as only 20% of plastic bottles get recycled. The bottles end up in incinerators, landfills and many in oceans posing a threat to marine life.
- Making the plastic bottles consumes 47 million gallons of oil every year, enough to enough to take 100,000 cars off the road and emitting more than 2.5 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions.
- Massive quantities of fossil fuels involved in shipping more than 5 trillion gallons of bottled water which are shipped every year.
By purchasing bottled water, youâ€™re indirectly raising the price of gasoline and contributing to global climate change.
- It takes two gallons of water to actually produce one gallon of bottled water. That’s the kind of wastage we cannot afford when water is becoming increasingly scarce.
The price of bottled water does not include a host of social, and environmental costs that society has to bear:
- Toxic emissions and air pollution from production of plastic damage public health.
- Landfilled plastic bottles risk contaminating ground water as they take a 1000 years to biodegrade, and the synthetic chemical additives and phthtalates leach into the groundwater, threatening water quality for future generations.
-Many communities suffer from a loss of groundwater as a result of massive extraction of local water, for which companies pay a pittance, and reap huge profits, without sharing the profits with the community.
Read this report on the lack of effective laws to curb water exploitation in India.
Governments should be investing billions to improve the quality and image of tap water, to manage and supply at a fair cost of what is essentially a common good belonging to the community. In privatising this precious resource, it is important to think who is profiting from a public good, and who is actually bearing the real costs.
Iâ€™ll explore in the next part, how we can break our addiction to bottled water, a habit that damages our health, pollutes the air, exacerbates global warming, contaminates the soil, and threatens future water supplies.
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