The battle over bottled vs. tap water
After negative media reports on the environmental cost of bottled water, the industry responds with greener strategies.
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While critics say such moves will have nearly no effect on the volume of plastic waste, penny-pinching city councils see it as good economics. In each of the two fiscal years prior to the 2007 ordinance, the city government of San Francisco spent just under half a million dollars on bottled water for city employees and functions, despite touting one of the highest-rated tap water sources in the country.Skip to next paragraph
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"Considering that an equal amount of municipal water costs about 1/2000th the price of bottled water, it's a very foolish expenditure," says Neva Goodwin, co-director of the Global Development and Environment Institute, a Medford-based research institute.
Water as a social-justice cause
Beyond campuses and city halls, the issues surrounding bottled water are also being taken up by groups dedicated to social justice. Sister Mary Ann Coyle sees the growing corporate control of water worldwide as the privatization of a basic human right and an increasingly scarce resource.
In 2006, Sister Coyle, a board member of the National Coalition of American Nuns, introduced a successful resolution asking its 1,200 members to refrain from purchasing bottled water unless necessary. Other religious groups, such as the grass-roots Presbyterians for Restoring Creation, are taking similar campaigns to churches nationwide.
Victoria Kaplan, organizing director of the consumer rights group Food and Water Watch, says that she has observed a heightened awareness toward bottled water issues that was absent even a few years ago. "I overhear small children in the grocery store telling their mothers not to buy it," she says. In response, beverage corporations "are moving into high gear to successfully market to an educated consumer," says Ms. Kaplan.
For example, Poland Spring, the Maine-based bottled water brand owned by Nestlé, is attempting to appeal to "green conscious" consumers with its new Eco-Shape bottle, which they claim uses 30 percent less plastic than the average half-liter bottle.
"We were getting a lot of calls from people worried about recycling and what happens to the plastic," says Jim Ritts, a consumer affairs representative for Nestlé.
The efforts are appreciated but aren't good enough for some consumers. "The impact of shipping other communities' water around the world when we can simply turn on the tap is reason enough to not buy bottled," says Kaplan.
Recognized as one of the world's top trend spotters, Ms. Salzman predicts that the future of bottled water will be localized, with companies bottling water within a few dozen miles of major retail spots – allaying some carbon emissions concerns while still providing a sought-after product. "In the same way we have local wineries, we will begin seeing more bottled-water companies based on a low transport model," she says.
But bottled water's convenience and health benefits, perceived or real, will ensure growing sales for the industry. Regardless of some consumer backlash, "the bottled water industry is very safe and people will continue to invest in it as an affordable luxury," says Salzman.
Bottled water impacts
These figures for 2006 highlight the problems many associate with the production of plastic bottles of water in the United States.
•More than 25.5 billion plastic water bottles are sold each year in the US.•
•More than 17 million barrels of oil (not including fuel for transportation) were used in plastic bottle production.
•Bottling water produced more than 2.5 million tons of carbon dioxide.
•It takes approximately 3 liters of water to produce 1 liter of bottled water.
•The total amount of energy used to produce, transport, refrigerate, and dispose of a plastic bottle of water may be as high as the equivalent of filling a 1 liter bottle one-quarter full of oil.
Source: Waste Management World, The Pacific Institute