April 7, 2009

The True Price of Bottled Water

Discovery News, a service of Silver Spring, Maryland-based Discovery Communications' Discovery Channel, posted an article by Emily Sohn on its website on April 6, 2009 (see "Bottled Water Carries Hidden Cost to Earth). Ms. Sohn's article outlines the financial and environmental costs of bottled water. For example, "Compared to a liter of tap water, producing a liter of bottled water requires as much as 2,000 times more energy, according to the first analysis of its kind. The study also found that" America's "bottled water habit sucked up the equivalent of 32 to 54 million barrels of oil last year." (Photo courtesy of Getty Images)

"From 1976 to 2007, the average amount of bottled water drunk per person per year in the United States jumped from about 6 liters (1.6 gallons) to 116 liters (30.6 gallons). In 2007, the last year for which numbers are available, Americans purchased more than 33 billion liters of bottled water. Globally, the number was 200 billion liters. Even just since 2001, bottled water sales have increased by 70 percent in the U.S. [Americans] now buy more bottled water than either milk or beer."

To better understand the environmental impact of bottled water, Peter Gleick, president of Oakland, California-based Pacific Institute and Heather Cooley, a Senior Research Associate with the Pacific Institute's Water Program, conducted three case studies: water that was bottled and used in Los Angeles; water bottled in the South Pacific and sent by cargo ship to L.A.; and water bottled in France and shipped in various ways to L.A. Each scenario looked at the energy requirements in collecting, treating, bottling, labeling, packaging, cooling, and transporting the liquid.

Ms. Sohn explains, "For water that is consumed near its source, producing PET [polyethylene terephthalate] plastic bottles is the most energy-intensive step, according to their results, which appeared in the journal Environmental Research Letters (see "Energy implications of bottled water"). For bottles that make longer trips, transportation has the biggest impact. In other words, buying water that was bottled near your home rather than in places like Fiji can help reduce your carbon footprint. Better yet, Gleick said, put away your wallet and turn on the faucet instead. 'We have very good tap water in this country,' he said. 'It's cheap. It's readily available. And it's much lower in energy use.'"

The findings of Mr. Gleick and Ms. Cooley's report have merit. In fact, the negative impact of bottled water caused Seattle's Mayor Greg Nickels to sign an Executive Order effective January 1, 2009 to eliminate city's purchasing of bottled water (see "Mayor to End Purchase of Bottled Water at City Hall"). Mayor Nickel's Executive Order not only highlights the environmental impact that "in 2006 it is estimated that producing the bottles for American consumption required the equivalent of more than 17 million barrels of oil, not including the energy for transportation, requiring 3 liters of water to produce each single liter of bottled water, and producing more than 2.5 million tons of carbon dioxide," but the financial impact as well, "the average price for bottled water is approximately $1 per pint (16 oz.) bottle or $8 per gallon and the average price for Seattle water is only 1/3 of 1 cent a gallon."

In the United States and other industrialized nations, we have the option (or luxury) to consume clean tap water. However, a report was released in 2008 that highlighted the amount of pharmaceutical toxins found in U.S. tap water and there remains a great amount of misinformation regarding the health implications of America's tap water. While industrialized nations have access to clean tap water, the same cannot be said about people living in developing nations.

There is a need for drastic improvement of public sanitation including accessibility to clean water. In addition to the costs and environmental impact caused by bottled watter, plastic containers are a significant source of litter in many developing nations. Moreover, as a result of the lack of recycling facilities, most plastic water bottles end up in garbage dumps, which are then burned causing the release of toxins into the air. I have visited numerous cities and villages in the developing world where the air is polluted as a result of garbage burning.

With Congress' stimulus package, there should be a concentrated effort to modernize or maintain America's access to clean water. From the billions of dollars recently committed to supporting developing nations, I hope to see a concentrated effort to build capacity in public infrastructure that includes recycling centers and increased access to clean water.

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