The debate centers not on the water, but on oilthe oil that's used to make the bottles, and the oil that's used to get them to consumers. According to the Earth Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., it takes 1.5 million barrels of oil a year to make the plastic water bottles Americans useplus countless barrels to transport the water from as far away as Fiji and refrigerate it. Plastic bottles that are not being recycled are piling up in landfills. (Of course, plenty of those bottles once contained drinks other than water.)
Julia Duch, 17, a senior at Staten Island Academy in New York, says that after reading a magazine article on the environmental impact of bottled water, she decided that "there was no use for carrying around a bottle of Poland Spring."
As head of her school's Environmental Club, Julia thought she should set an example: She now carries water in a reusable plastic bottle. The club plans to submit a proposal that the school stop selling bottled water and give each student a reusable water bottle.
The issue took on a higher profile this past summer when the mayors of San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Minneapolis, and New York began urging people to opt for tap water instead of bottled. This added momentum to efforts by environmental groups like Corporate Accountability International and Food & Water Watch.
Over the last 15 years, the bottled water industry has turned a product that once seemed an indulgence into a daily necessity. Bottled water has now overtaken coffee and milk in sales nationally.
Turning to The Tap
An August editorial in The New York Times"In Praise of Tap Water"argued against bottled water on the ground that "this country has some of the best public water supplies in the world." Many restaurants have pulled bottled water from their menus.
The industry is feeling the heat, and is taking steps to address these concerns. Nestlé, which sells Perrier and Poland Spring, and Coca-Cola, which sells Dasani, have reduced package weight, tried to become more energy efficient, and launched conservation and recycling projects.
According to The Wall Street Journal, Coca-Cola is planning to build a plant capable of recycling up to 2 billion 20-ounce bottles a year. Beverage companies are also looking at ways to encourage more consumers to recycle.
The Fiji Water Company says it intends to become carbon negativethat is, to more than make up for the greenhouse gases released in the bottling, transportation, and sales of its product. The company says it will install a windmill in 2009 to provide energy to its bottling plant in Fiji, which is in the South Pacific. It will also ship water intended for sale on the East Coast to Philadelphia, rather than trucking it from Los Angeles.
In August, the International Bottled Water Association took out full-page ads in newspapers, urging consumers to recycle, not abandon, their bottles and arguing that "when we drink any beverage, it's likely to come out of a bottle or a can."
Paul Pentel, a physician in Minneapolis, sees this as two separate issues. "One is water, the other is plastic bottles," he says. "We have been trying to steer people away from the liquid candyjuices, pop, and everything else. From that standpoint, water is good, and I'm very hesitant to demonize bottled water."
Bring Your Own
Indeed, some people wonder why environmentalists have singled out bottled water, and not dish detergent or Wiffle Ball bats. Jessica Retan, 22, a nanny who lives in New York, says the waste issue is "concerning, but there's Coke, shampooa lot of other things in addition to water that are bottled in plastic. So I'm curious. Why just focus on bottled water?"
Gigi Kellett of Corporate Accountability International's Think Outside the Bottle campaign says that targeting bottled water is a good starting point because water "is something people have access to right out of the tap."
Then there's the cost to the consumer of all that bottled water. Bringing your own, says Kellett, is "a way to protect the environment and protect your pocketbook."