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Back to the Tap?

How the environmental impact of bottled water is getting people to give up their plastic

By Nicole Cotroneo

Americans have gotten the message that water is a lot healthier than soda and many other beverages, and the evidence is everywhere: plastic water bottles stuffed into backpacks, gym bags, and all too often, tossed empty on the side of the road.

In fact, the United States is now the world's largest consumer of bottled water. In 2008, Americans spent $11 billion to guzzle more than 8 billion gallons.

But while the water is good for us, the plastic bottles it comes in may not be so good for the planet: They consume massive amounts of fossil fuel to produce and transport, then pile up in landfills. This has led to efforts across the U.S. to urge people to turn on their faucets instead of buying bottled water.

Given the tough economic times, the cost of bottled water, as well as its environmental impact, has prompted city officials in San Francisco and Los Angeles to ban the use of city funds to buy it.

And on many high school and college campuses, the reusable plastic or steel water bottle has become something of a badge of environmental awareness. Berkeley High School in California has removed bottled water from its cafeteria, and colleges like Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, and Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, have banned its sale on campus.

Although it's true that other beverages also come in plastic bottles, environmentalists point out that buying water in bottles is unnecessary and wasteful because the tap water in most American cities is perfectly acceptable.

"First of all, water is water is water," says Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition at New York University. "Second, tap water in the developed world is not only cleaner than bottled water, but it has fluoride, which most bottled water does not. Mostly, you are paying for the convenience of the bottle."

That convenience comes at a steep price. In New York City, for example, an eight-ounce glass of tap water costs $0.0005. Eight glasses a day comes to $1.46 per year. But the same amount of bottled water can cost more than $1,400 a year.

Several U.S. cities, including San Francisco, New York, and Houston, are promoting their municipal water supplies. The town of Babylon, N.Y., has pulled single-serve water bottles from its vending machines, upgraded public drinking fountains, and offered free reusable bottles to residents as part of a local campaign to help people kick the habit of buying bottled water.

Steve Bellone, the Babylon town supervisor, says the bottled-water industry "has done an effective job of convincing people that drinking bottled water is good for you. But we have some of the most pristine water in the country."

Not as Pure as You Think

Some consumers say they drink bottled water because it tastes better than tap water, or because they believe it has fewer impurities. But in blind taste tests, most people can't tell the difference between tap and bottled.

And bottled water is not necessarily healthier. In 2008, the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., tested 10 popular brands of bottled water and found 38 chemical pollutants altogether, with an average of 8 per brand; 4 brands were contaminated with bacteria.

Bottled water also leaves a hefty carbon footprint. Plastic-bottle production in the U.S. consumes at least 17 million barrels of oil annually, according to the Pacific Institute, an environmental research organization. And that doesn't even take into account the oil it takes to transport bottled water from as far away as Fiji and refrigerate it.

The environmental impact of bottled water doesn't end there. Eighty-six percent of the plastic water bottles used in the U.S. become garbage or litter, according to the Container Recycling Institute. About 38 billion per year wind up in landfills, where they can remain intact for up to 1,000 years.

To offset its negative image, the bottled-water industry is taking measures to produce a greener product. Nestlé, which sells Perrier and Poland Spring, and Coca-Cola, which sells Dasani and Evian, have reduced bottle weight and launched conservation and recycling projects. Fiji Water plans to become "carbon negative" by using renewable energy sources like windmills and investing in reforestation projects.

Thoughtless Extravagance?

Meanwhile, as the debate over bottled water continues, more than 1 billion people in developing countries lack access to any source of clean drinking water. Peter Singer, a bioethicistat Princeton University, says that in countries where the drinking water is safe, bottled water is a wasteful luxury.

"We're completely thoughtless about handing out $1 for this bottle of water when there are virtually identical alternatives for free," Singer told Fast Company magazine. "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."