Friday, May 3, 2013

Why bottled water is a bad idea

Normally I write a more straightforward review, but this time I thought I'd take one small aspect from a book I recently read and highlight it. This is adapted from "The seven sins of bottled water" on page 115:
  • Plastic bottles are made from petroleum and the manufacturing process creates some really nasty chemical wastes. Some 50 million barrels of oil are used to manufacture over 3 million tons of polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, each year. The process also uses lots of freshwater – 17.5 kilograms of water for each kilogram of PET – which polutes a lot of water and generates significant amounts of hazardous air pollution. Also, consumers of bottled water possibly expose themselves to chemicals such as bromate, antimony, and phthalate DEHP (which has been linked to obesity and infertility).
  • Most states do not collect a 5 cent deposit on water bottles to encourage recycling and 88% are thrown away instead of being recycled. When they go to landfills significant levels of toxic chemicals eventually end up leaching into groundwater.
  • The water is pumped far from where it is sold – sometimes distant places like Fiji or France. Huge amounts of energy are used to treat the water, fill and cap the bottles, and then transport it. The distribution process also creates needless pollution as trucks and barges move it around the country or world. On average, bottled water uses 2,000 times the amount of energy that goes into delivering tap water.
  • Bottled water doesn't always come from places where water is plentiful. Groundwater rights and entire stretches of rivers have been sold to multinational corporations and created severe local water shortages – often in third world countries where the rights of the poor are seldom protected. Even in the U.S., corporate licenses have been granted to operate high-capacity wells, which lowers the water table for individuals dependent on personal wells. Some local communities have objected to the sale of their water but rarely with success.
  • Bottled water may be a healthier alternative where public water supplies are unsafe, but in developed nations such as the United States the tap water industry is regulated and more reliably safe. Bottled water is mostly unregulated and often fails independent tests for contaminants such as arsenic.
  • The bottled water fad is due in part to clever marketing which plays upon mostly irrational fears and portrays it as fashionable, convenient, and healthy. Minorities and recent immigrants in the U.S. have especially been targeted and are 3 times more likely to purchase bottled water for their children. Some experts worry this exposes children to greater dental health risks since bottled water usually does not contain flouride.
  • 50% of bottled water is actually just tap water, although it can be as much as 350 times as expensive!

Actually, Water by David L. Feldman is mostly about public water policy – the part about bottled water was only a few pages. It's published by Polity (I received it from Amazon Vine), which is primarily an academic publisher of books on social sciences and politics. I wasn't even going to review this book on my blog until the other day when I was kidding my friend Neil about his ever-present bottles of water and I think he took me a little too seriously. Honestly, I recognize that it's convenient and a healthier option than soda, but I also understand that it's not without drawbacks. (But I'm not an anti-bottled water activist or anything – I'm just reviewing a book!)

And the book explains that water isn't just for drinking or uses around the house; it's also essential in agriculture, manufacturing, and energy production. And unfortunately, we don't have an unlimited supply of freshwater and many around the world don't even have reliable access to clean (potable) water. Existing sources are becoming increasingly contaminated by polution, and salinity levels (the amount of disolved minerals, not just salt) are rising due to overuse. And it brings up many interesting questions: Is access to water a basic human right? Is it ethical for corporations to exploit publicly owned natural sources of water for profit? What policies should communities and governments have toward this necessary and sometimes scarce resource?

Professor Feldman looks at these questions from a public policy standpoint. He addresses our attempts to control water, from efforts to mitigate floods to moving it to distant locations (usually for irrigation). As a textbook it is fairly straightforward and easy to read, and it's mostly dispassionate with the pros and cons of each issue evaluated. He uses examples from all over the world, although there are a number from California where I live and where water issues are more important than we usually remember. As a general reader, however, I would have liked more information about being a wiser consumer (I saw no mentions of gray-water systems). Still, it's an interesting book that made me to think more about the bigger picture.

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