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Bottled Water

We all know the feeling. We’re in a hurry at the grocery store or gas station so we pick up a bottle of water. We know the markup on the water is absurd—thousands times that of tap water—but we do it anyway. We know that plastic bottles are derived from petroleum—a limited resource—but we do it anyway. We also know that clean water is a limited resource—just ask our neighbors in drought-stricken California—but we do it anyway.

Locally, Madison Water Utility’s 2013 report stated our water quality exceeds all state and federal standards. Madison even had the best tasting municipal water in the state last year, at least by the standards of the judges at the Wisconsin State Fair. Our country has some of the safest tap water in the world, but we continue to be the largest consumers of bottled water in the world. The Sierra Club states, “The United States consumes 1,500 bottles of water per second: that’s 30,000,000,000 a year, or 93 bottles for EVERY person in the United States.” That’s an absurd amount of absurdity.

But does bottled water really deserve to be demonized? Sure, it’s a product we could all live without (again), but the type of convenience bottled water affords us may be the hallmarkof our instant gratification society, and as such, it would take a Herculean effort to suppress something so ubiquitous. In cases where clean water isn’t available, bottled water acts as a thirst-destroying surrogate, as several hundred thousand people in West Virginia discovered this past January. Bottled water also fills us with a sense of safety, even when we ignore the Natural Resources Defense Council findings that, “there are no federal filtration or disinfection requirements for bottled water.” Surface tap water, on the other hand, is required to be filtered and disinfected. But what about the fluoride and chlorine in tap water you ask? Well, the answer to this depends on your source. One thing is for certain: Jimi Hendrix was right…there is too much confusion.     

The pros and cons of bottled water have been debatedfor years. Does bottled water have a true place in our world, or is it simply a concoction of exceptional marketing and a consciously oblivious consumer base? In seeking some answers, this spring I sat down with a true expert on bottled water. His name was Pete. I say was because Pete is no longer with us in the traditional sense. He was recycled. See, Pete was a plastic disposable water bottle. I thought, who better to explain the reasons for having bottled water in our society than a bottle of water? Sure, I may have received some biased answers from the CEOs and other authorities that control our water supplies, but I wanted to speak with someone on the front lines. Pete was waiting for his chance to see the world (again) while sitting in a beverage cooler at Willy Street Co-op. He agreed to speak under the condition that I place him in a recycling bin after his contents were consumed. This seemed easy enough, so I purchased him and we shared a nice chat about his past and our collective future. And it went a little something like this.

Please tell me about yourself, Pete.
“Well, for starters, I’m made out of polyethylene terephthalate, or PETE for short, and I’ll be around for at least 450 years before I completely decompose. That’s basically five and a half times your average human lifespan. In theory that means I could have been present at the birth of Italian astronomer, Galileo, in 1564. I have a number ‘1’ on my bottom; that’s my recycling code. For some reason there are people who think I’ll vanish from the Earth once they live me in a trashcan or in a field after a summer festival. The Clean Air Council has said that 75% of recyclable plastic water bottles just like me end up in landfills. Yikes. Ultimately, my longevity depends solely on the actions of the people who purchase me. Sure, I’d love to sit in a river for the next couple centuries, although I’m completely out of my element there.

“I’ve been recycled many times over the years, but recently I was fortunate to have a lengthy stay at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. I was clandestinely placed in the stacks there by an intern with the Environmental Protection Agency and subsequently forgotten. That’s where I picked up a lot of my knowledge. I overhead the reading of many wonderful texts there, but my favorite was the 2008 book Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It, by Elizabeth Royte. She likens bottled water to, ‘a signature product of the world’s largest food corporation,’ as well as, ‘the biggest scam in marketing history and a harbinger of far worse things to come.’ That was a real cap opener for me.”

How do you believe human beings survived for so long without you, Pete?
“Great question. Well, suffice itto say, bottled water has been around for as long as there have been bottles and water. But it wasn’t until the 1970s when a French company, Perrier, started to sell the notion that bottled water could be marketed en masse. By the middle of the 1990s large corporations found a way to make billions off a resource that people could already access in their homes by using inexpensive plastic like me. According to The Sierra Club, ‘it takes 1.5 million tons of plastic to produce bottled water for the global market.’ That’s a copious amount of plastic, but if my species went extinct today, human beings would still carry on with their lives: they would find a way. While we’re on the topic, there’s a company from Europe that’s created an edible water bottle. It’s called an Ooho and it’s produced using a culinary process known as spherification, which turns water into an edible membrane with the help of brown algae extract. This membrane holds the drinking water. Once you finish drinking the water inside the membrane you can eat the membrane or dispose of it with the knowledge that it’s completely biodegradable. You can even make Oohos in your kitchen.”

Did you hear about the restaurant in California that has a water sommelier?
“I did. I think it sounds like a great way to make money. It’s also a perfect, ridiculous representation of just how far the fascination with bottled water has become for some people, especially in thirsty California. This place has water tastings and pairs up foods with ‘designer’ waters from around the world, some of which cost 280,000 times more than tap water, according to I don’t know why people are willing to pay a lot more for water than they have to. For example, if all the water you used in your household was bottled water, your monthly bill would be somewhere around $9,000, or $108,000 annually.

“Water sommeliers and extravagances aside, there’s the question of safety and convenience. For example, this past January 10,000 gallons of the toxic chemical methylcyclohexane methanol, also known as MCHM, spilled into the Elk River in Charleston, West Virginia, as did a smaller amount of propylene glycolphenyl ether, or PPH. For ten days the entire city was under a state of emergency and residents had no choice but to drink bottled water or water from a safe source somewhere outside the city. Grocery stores had a hard time keeping bottled water on the shelves. In this case, drinking tap water was not an option and thousands of bottles just like me came to the rescue. Suffice it to say, this was an extraordinary circumstance, not your average trip to the gym or some music festival in Chicago. The real question is what happened to all of the disposable plastic bottles that were used in West Virginia. We know what happened to their contents.”

How do you handle your fame?
“I wouldn’t say that I’m famous—infamous perhaps. I think most folks out there recognize that I do more harm than good, especially when you think of the resources it takes to produce me, or the fact that up to 40 percent of bottled water is sourced from tap water according to the NRDC. The Earth Policy reports the U.S. bottled-water industry uses roughly 50 million barrels of oil each year to produce, refrigerate and transport bottles of water. The amount of oil it takes to produce water bottles for a year could fill a million cars. Can you imagine seeing a million cars drive past your house? And it actually takes three times as much water to make me than it does fill me. I’d love to be your BWFF—Bottled Water Friend Forever, but the best way to take care of me, and your planet, is to make sure I get recycled, or don’t purchase me at all. Additionally, there’s no safe way to make sure I stay clean, and to be candid, there’s a good chance I’ll leach chemicals the longer you hang on to me. I can’t help it; I’m a cheap piece of plastic.”

What advice do you have for human consumers out there?
“My advice to consumers out there is to realize you are committing to a social contract every time you purchase a disposable water bottle. Sometimes it’s necessary, like the circumstances in West Virginia, but I have afeeling that deep down inside people know they can get along just fine without buying disposable water bottles. I’m okay with that; that’s less painful recycling time for me. Don’t feel guilty; just try to imagine the impact you would have by using recyclable bottles instead. Reusable water bottles are a terrific idea because they can be cleaned. Just make sure they are BPA-free if you purchase a petroleum-based one. Willy Street Co-op makes it easy for you, as well, by selling reusable water bottles and reverse osmosis water at both locations. So, that’s my advice: if you have to purchase me, please make sure I get recycled.”

That was the end of our chat. I thanked Pete for his time and we went our separate ways on our own journeys through time. As I left Pete in the recycling bin at Willy Street Co-op I tried to imagine the size of the recycling bin the United States would need for the 30,000,000,000 disposable plastic water bottles used annually. Then I tried to imagine seeing that bin filling at the rate of 1,500 bottles per second. Then I imagined placing my own 93 bottles in that bin. That wasn’t easy. Finally, I tried to imagine that bin completely empty…that was a whole lot easier.

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