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July 9, 2009

Bottled Water Problem: It’s Not Just The Bottle!

 

Bottled water companies are under attack. They know their plastic bottles are a problem, and they are working around the clock to fix it. Either by changing the bottles themselves or changing their marketing or both. PepsiCo, for example, just launched it’s “Eco-Fina” bottle to contain Aquafina bottled water. According to Pepsi’s press release, the Eco-fina bottle weighs less than any other plastic bottle and contains 50% less plastic.

Is this enough?

If you ask me, no! Because the problems with bottled water extend beyond the plastic bottle. And yesterday, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released their report, “BOTTLED WATER
FDA Safety and Consumer Protections Are Often Less Stringent Than Comparable EPA Protections for Tap Water
,” basically finding the same thing. Plastic bottles are a problem. But they are not the only problem with bottled water.

So here’s what the Government Accountability Office found:

“Over the past decade, the per capita consumption of bottled water in the United States has more than doubled—from 13.4 gallons per person in 1997 to 29.3 gallons per person in 2007.”

1) Bottled water is not as strongly regulated as tap water.

Bottled water and municipal tap water are regulated by two different government agencies. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets the standards for tap water under the Safe Drinking Water Act and requires that municipalities have their water quality tested every year by certified laboratories and that the test results be provided to the public. The Food & Drug Administration (FDA), on the other hand, regulates bottled water as a food under the Federal Food, Drug, & Cosmetics Act (FFDCA) and, while most of its standards for contaminants in water mirror those of the EPA, the FDA is not given the regulatory power under the FFDCA to require bottled water companies to test using certified labs or to provide the results of those tests to the public.

The FDA can’t even require bottlers to report test results if high levels of contaminants are found! And while state standards for bottled water are often higher than the FDA’s, they are still often less comprehensive than than standards for tap water.

2) There is no bottled water standard for DEHP, a hormone-disrupting phthalate.

As I said, the FDA standards for contaminants are pretty much the same as the EPA’s with the exception of one important chemical: DEHP, one of the phthalates used in plastics. The FDA deferred coming up with a final rule on DEHP back in 1996 and still does not have a standard for it even though the deadline for acting on DEHP was 15 years ago. Could there be DEHP in bottled water? There could. We just don’t know!

3) Bottled water requires vastly more energy to manufacture and transport than tap water.

Depending on whether the water comes from local sources or is shipped from abroad, the GAO concludes that the total energy required to bring a typical 1-liter PET bottle to a consumer on the West Coast is 1,100 to 2,000 times higher than the energy cost of producing tap water. Add to that the green house gas emissions from bottling and shipping, and you have another huge, completely avoidable environmental impact.

4) Bottled water impacts local community water supplies.

Water extraction can alter local groundwater levels and flows to nearby surface waters, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. It can lower the local water table shared by nearby well users and affect natural resources dependent on groundwater flowing such as certain fish and other wildlife populations important to a community. For example, in 2001 residents in Mecosta County, Michigan, sued a water bottler, alleging that its withdrawals reduced water levels of a nearby stream and wetlands and unlawfully interfered with their water rights.

And according to Food & Water Watch, the jobs the bottled water industry brings to a community in exchange for its water are few, low-paying, and dangerous.

The GAO’s Recommendations:

1) GAO recommends the FDA be required to issue a standard of quality regulation for DEHP within 1 year or publish in the Federal Register the agency’s reasons for not doing so.

2) Require bottled water companies to convey results of its water testing to the public by, at the very least, providing on the label contact information directing customers on how to obtain comprehensive information. And should the FDA determine that it lacks the necessary authority to implement these actions, it should seek legislation to obtain the authority.

The GAO can’t urge you to stop buying bottled water, but I can!

The bottled water industry pays millions of dollars each year to convince us their water is safer. But where’s the proof? Where are the test results showing exactly what is and isn’t in bottled water?

We’ve heard the reports about pharmaceuticals in tap water, right? Many of us turned to bottled water as the alternative. How do we know the same levels of pharmaceuticals aren’t in bottled water? We don’t know because we don’t have the information. In fact, in a study done by NRDC, several brands of bottled water were found to be contaminated above state limits.

Notice I haven’t even mentioned the plastic bottles, which could be leaching their own toxic chemicals into our water. That’s because bottlers want you to think the issue is about the bottle and not the water. They think that if they create a bottle with less plastic (Aquafina’s new Eco-fina bottle, for example) or corn plastic or recycled plastic and that if they provide support for recycling facilities, then the problem will go away.

They want you to focus on the bottle so you miss the bigger issue!

The bottled water industry is expending vast quantities of energy and materials to extract and bottle a natural resource that runs nearly free from our taps and convincing us that it’s somehow better without a offering a shred of proof. This pisses me off, to put it bluntly. Not just because I don’t like to be duped. But because of the indirect effect these actions have on our municipal water supplies and on the poor people of this world who depend on it.

If the world’s rich abandon concern for our public water infrastructure in favor of expensive bottled water, the poor of the world will be left with polluted water and dried up wells. This is where environmental and social issues come together. In fact, when it comes to the privatization of our water supply, I actually care less about the bottle and more about the water itself.

In fact, one small town in rural Australia has become the very first town in the world to ban bottled water outright after studying the full impact of its extraction, bottling, and transport. Hopefully Bundanoon will be the first of many!



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31 comments
smoke shop
smoke shop

Bottled water is a gimmick, they sell you 10 cents worth of water for 10 bux, and many of the bottled water companies are selling you what is basically tap water

dan
dan

Lifesaver jerrycans and water bottles are the best resource for disaster relief. They purify water and one jerrycan filter can produce 20,000 liters of clean water whereas it would require a plane and a semi to deliver the same amount in bottles. You can filter pond, stream, puddle, lake or dishpan water into pure drinking water.

Anonymous
Anonymous

Great article! Project Earth H2o is a great option for people looking for alternatives as well as awareness.

Peter H
Peter H

There are strong moves to lower bottled water use in many places world wide. A professor of law in Singapore has been strongly active in trying to have many Asians revert to using water in your own bottle from home.Banning is a bit silly in many ways.....especially in the tropics where access to water [ and out of a tap can be questionable] is very necessary, and having your own supply is tricky for visitors.Be thoughtful and revert to what we all did before.....plan in advance and take your own!!

Sarah S
Sarah S

I just took the think outside the bottle pledge last week in Boston to choose tap over bottled.I had never thought about how bottled water companies are changing the ways we think about water. I was shocked to learn about the impact that bottled water was having right here on communities here in the US.You can take the pledge at www.thinkoutsidethebottle.org

Erica Schuetz
Erica Schuetz

Hey, Beth--Thanks for this wonderful, comprehensive post. Very well-said! I work here at Food & Water Watch (thanks for the shout-out, by the way) and bottled water is one of my particular pet peeves--and it's great to have bloggers like you helping spread this important message.For anyone who hasn't already heard of Food & Water Watch, please check out our Take Back the Tap campaign at http://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/water/bottled. Thanks again, keep up the good work!-Erica at Food & Water Watch

Eco Yogini
Eco Yogini

I agree, for me it's less about the plastic (although this is significant) and more so about the social issues surrounding the privatization of water.Water is a basic human right. We should not have to pay for clean water... this includes being taxed for our water supply.Companies like 'Ethos' with starbucks are sickening in their manipulation of the public's views on bottled water.

Michael L. Neff
Michael L. Neff

I use glass water bottles around the house and office, and I use my stainless steel bottle for outdoor activities.This site has the best deals on glass bottles and stainless steel bottles (their glass bottles are less than four bucks each!):www.AmbrosiaWaterFilters.com

Indoor Kitty
Indoor Kitty

This is a question that doesn't apply to everyday bottle use. How do we provide safe, clean drinking water in disaster situations? We can avoid bottled water in our everyday lives, but bottlers will inevitably retreat to the nobility of their social safety net status. Glass is not appropriate for this situation because disasters are chaotic enough without the danger of broken bottles. My idea is for FEMA to contract with trucking companies that haul food in tankers (think milk.) In the event of a disaster, the companies divert their tankers to designated municipal water supplies, fill up and drive to the disaster area. Citizens can then fill up FEMA provided jerry cans and shelters can provide individuals with reusable bottles. Stockpiling empty, clean jerry cans and reusable bottles seems less expensive than stockpiling bottled water, which must be rotated. Cleaning the bottles over the course of disaster relief can be accomplished with a vinegar rinse. Pick apart my idea for its flaws, please. If Tide can roll in with the "Loads of Hope" truck, I think my tanker idea would work. However, I may be missing something.Also, before buying bottled water while on vacation at a foul tasting water destination, try the ice machine. There's a good chance that the water is filtered. Its wasteful in a different way (energy to freeze the water,) but a bottle full of ice before you go to bed magically becomes a half bottle of water by morning. Add more ice and you're good to go.

Sarah
Sarah

Yes, not having access to clean drinking water is an issue.“In a 2002 survey, The Gallup Organization (Gallup) found that the leading reason that consumers purchased bottled water was due to health-related issues; taste was the second leading reason, and the convenience of bottled water was also a factor.” http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d09610.pdf So, yes, we need to think about the issue on a global level.That does not mean that because it’s not safe to drink tap water in Mexico or China or Africa or Walkerton Canada that we can continue to increase our consumption in the United States.The Gallup poll showed that 28% of people who bought bottled water or filtered there water did so because of taste (http://health.usnews.com/usnews/health/articles/070719/19water.htm) The GAO found that about 3 out of 4 water bottles produced in the United States in 2006 were discarded instead of being recycled. Clearly we can act on a local level to reduce the use of bottled water and if it’s necessary to purchase bottled water REUSE or recycle.

Robj98168
Robj98168

I was watching them bottle water at costco- What a racket-- All this fancy equiptment and carousels and assembly line belts! THen the bottle goes up to a feed spigot and gets filled with Water! H2O - LOL plain old aqua. THen people would watch that and some would buy a case of water. When they just saw that the water was the same as the drinking fountain outside costco's rest room. WHHHHHHY!

Oldnovice
Oldnovice

For my daughter's outdoors (in Texas) wedding reception, I'd first thought not to provide ANY bottled water. We got a 5-gallon jug of tap water and put it on the buffet.We ended up getting 24 fairly-large bottles of water free with the purchase of other stuff and sent it along with the cases of beer, cola, etc. and when I sat for a minute to talk to my ex-husband he complained that there wasn't enough bottled water. I provided glass drinking mugs for everyone and he would have been satisfied with tap water, but we'd failed to label the jug with the contents. One of a list of failures on my part for that day, but overall it went well so I won't kick myself.

Going Green Mama
Going Green Mama

I read this article in the paper. Of course I think it was whacked down to 8 inches in length. Hello? Does anyone care what you're drinking?Have you red "The Body Toxic" yet? Scary book...Covers all kinds of things you think are "safe" but are leaching out chemicals left and right.

Olivia
Olivia

The United Nations estimates that 42,000 people die every week from diseases related to bad water and poor sanitation. This is a bigger problem than bottled water: in fact, much of the world's population has no access at all to safe and available drinking water. I am not in favour of bottled water either but what do you do when, for example, you travel to such places as Mexico or China or Africa - and I don't mean to the fancy hotels that filter their water but into the areas where most of the population lives? What do you do in the case of a Walkerton where an entire town's water supply is contaminated by e-coli? Or where agricultural run-off contaminates local wells? I'm not advocating for bottled water but I think we have to back some of these issues up and see where the real problems lie. Until we begin to tackle these issues at ground level we are only providing band-aid solutions. If EVERYONE in the world had access to clean drinking water then I doubt that bottled water would even be an option for most people.

Carla
Carla

Thank you for posting this detailed information about the ills of bottled water. I see you're in Oakland. I am a Oakland native and EB MUD has the best tap water around. I admit when I travel to areas where the tap water is cloudy and taste like bleach and no amount of filtering is going to make it taste better, I am at a loss as to what to do in those situations.

Pure Mothers
Pure Mothers

Oh, and I agree with Clif. You should get paid for your writing. You're posts are so well written every time!

Pure Mothers
Pure Mothers

We just got a filter - FINALLY and I will be so happy next week when Arrowhead picks up their stand and crock!I wrote about it last week: http://www.puremothers.com/?p=1259When I called Arrowhead to cancel, the woman asked me if I would just like to get the sport bottles delivered instead. I didn't mean to laugh, but I did. Are you kidding me? I haven't purchased a bottle of water in I think, 2 years. I ALWAYS remember to fill my bottle at home and bring it with me everywhere. Probably because I was nursing and needed to keep my water intake up. Now it's a very good habit!

Anaquita
Anaquita

Hey just came across your blog for the first time ever, and I have to say I find it quite interesting.I myself use bottled water as little as possible. And the few times I do, I always make sure I recycle it. I've gotten it down to where I'm out and about well longer than planned, and I'm on the verge of dehydration, which isn't reccomended. And then I try to find something with electrolytes. I do try to plan to take something with me from home, (I have a filter on my tap) but once in awhile, life happens. I did however buy it more often in school. Yes we had water fountains, however around that time school after school in the area was being reported with rust and iron in the pipes, and well.. I was freaked out. Heh.

Beth Terry
Beth Terry

Hi Beth - this is a good time to repost the "take back the filter" links. Since we have the same name, and I have occasionally been thanked for your brilliance (grin) I really took your message to heart. I have a Brita Filter on the kitchen sink, and I keep a Brita pitcher in the fridge. I just took advantage of the fruits of your labors - and recycled my first filters! Very cool. I also notice I like the taste of the water better!AND - I started recycling glass bottles that could double as my water bottle. In Arizona, we HAVE to carry water with us. I think it's the law... So I just keep a fridge full of glass water bottles to carry with me when I go out into the scorching heat.Your little ripple you started years ago with this blog is turning into a wave. Go BETH!The "other Beth" in Phoenix

Kathy G
Kathy G

I have been known to drink bottled water on occasion--sometimes at parties the host won't supply cups--but after I drink the first bottle I refill it from the tap and use the same bottle all night. Our area (St. Louis MO) is noted for the quality of its water. I've also been known to take my bottle of water with me at the end of the night to make sure it gets recycled properly!

Diane MacEachern
Diane MacEachern

What so much of this gets down to is the effectiveness of industry to push products we don't need by making us afraid. The suggestion with bottled water is that we have to fear tap water. Consumers need to change the lens they use when they look at the stuff they buy. Rather than adopt the fear mentality that serves companies so well, we all need to become far more skeptical of the advertising that companies pitch us.

Clif
Clif

Bundanoon? Oh, I loved that movie with Van Johnson and, wasn't it Gene Kelly, dressed in kilts?Bottled water - it really is craziness, especially since it can be ordinary tap water from anywhere. Don't tell me the economy is in dire straits if sales of bottled water are holding up. P.T. Barnum would understand the phenomenon completely.Now, on an even more serious topic, Beth, you are an accountant, no? WHAT THE HECK ARE YOU FOOLING WITH NUMBERS FOR when you write so well? Yes, I know there are only two newspapers in the U.S. that are making money, but you are a journalist. Don't let that English degree go to waste! PLEASE, send in a resume to not one, but both of those profitable newspapers. As one of the 2,543 newspaper subscribers left in the country, I am in a position to know good journalism/advocacy when I read it. Don't delay.

Lara S.
Lara S.

I specially hate sodas and "juices"; you can't even tell if the water used to make it tasted ok or not, it's full of sugar or sweetners (pretty much equals to poison, that's what my doctor says), preservatives, flavors... Now everything has added vitamins and minerals, like that was a good thing... And I'm pretty sure noone ever checks whether they have the right amounts of any of the ingredients. And the publicities they all make... they're so underestimating, pisses me off as well!.

Green Fundraising Ideas
Green Fundraising Ideas

I love that the gov't is bringing this issue to the forefront!So important! I think they more we all talk about it, the better off we will be to move away from the "bottle water addiction" our society has come to have in the past 10 years.GREAT POST, as always!

Amber
Amber

I gave up bottled water a number of months ago. I've since learned that my municipal water supply is glacier-fed. I can't believe I paid for water for so long, when the stuff out of the tap is even better.

Fake Plastic Fish
Fake Plastic Fish

Over Coffee -- I guess you missed the last paragraph of this post. :-)Beth

Over Coffee - the green edition
Over Coffee - the green edition

Did you hear about that city/town in Australia that banned plastic water bottles? My husband was telling me about it last night. Maybe we can learn something from them!

Tiffany
Tiffany

OOOH - this is a personal pet peeve of mine! I wrote a little instructable a while ago about how to boycott the bottle - if you are interested: http://www.instructables.com/id/How-to-Boycott-the-Bottle/You wouldn't believe how much of this junk our school cafeteria sells every day at lunch. And we have DRINKING FOUNTAINS IN THE CAFETERIA! Ack! I also wrote a blog entry about our tap water/bottled water taste test. Have a look!http://picnicbasketcrafts.blogspot.com/2009/04/battle-of-bottles-what-i-did-on-earth.htmlLove your blog! Keep on doing the good work Beth!

Linda
Linda

The plastic bottle and the water within are things we consumers can see and feel angry about. The bigger problem is corporations that take water from a stream and negatively impact the ecology of the waterway with no consideration for anything but profit. I think these huge corporations like Nestle are really scary and we need to stand up to them.

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  1. Bottled vs Tap Water ~ What’s the Greenest? says:

    [...] and also more eco-friendly. Bottled water poses several issues including water contamination, water extraction that often disrupts the ecosystem and the pollution caused by plastic [...]

  2. [...] also poses a wide range of health and environmental problems including water contamination, water extraction processes that often disrupt the ecosystem, leaching of chemicals from plastic and the pollution [...]

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