By Chuck Fager | July 2009
A crusade against bottled water has become something of a standard feature of environmental activism among Friends. I discovered this a couple years ago when some self-appointed eco-elders came after me for having given away several cases of bottled water with distinctive labels.
Good heavens, I wondered as their ire crashed down—what had I done? To listen to the indictment, giving away bottled water at a Quaker event was a mark of moral turpitude that fell somewhere between recruiting torturers for Guantanamo and handing out heroin to preschoolers.
Well, call me clueless and provincial, but this notion came out of the blue. In its wake, I figured it would be a good idea to find out what all the shouting was about, so I did some reading and digging.
Much of the anti-bottled water (or BW) propaganda can be traced back to an outfit in Ottawa, Canada, called the Polaris Institute <http://www.insidethebottle.org/>. On the other side, the defenders of BW seem centered in the International Bottled Water Association, a trade group in Alexandria, Virginia <http://www.bottledwater.org/>.
After considerable study, I came to two conclusions on this topic. First, that water problems, in the U.S. and the world are very real and very serious. And second, the anti-BW crusade is a mistaken, misleading, and misguided way to tackle these issues.
Indeed, the more I studied, the more clear it seemed that BW was not at all the plague upon humanity its attackers claim it to be. Quite the contrary; at the end of the day, I believe we’re very lucky to have it around. Why? Below are my Top Ten Reasons (plus three), a description of which will also suggest much of why I regard the anti-BW jihad as unsound. Here we go:
1. Safety—a major anti-BW complaint is not about water, but about the plastic containers most of it comes in. And to be sure, there are drawbacks to plastic. Yet, consider the alternatives. No, not the ten-dollar or more stainless steel mini-jugs that are fashionable in some quarters; their appeal is strictly limited. Glass containers are the primary alternative containers in the marketplace, and they were what plastic supplanted.
Glass containers are pretty benign in recycling terms. But en route to the recycling center, they have a real downside: their broken remnants are the cause of thousands of serious injuries each year, especially in poorer neighborhoods. This was the main reason they were largely replaced by plastic in the first place. The switch was made initially by moms, because kids could carry the bottles safely. Beware of trying to take this away from them. (A 1998 study in distressed Philadelphia neighborhoods showed that broken glass injuries from bottles incurred in public spaces, especially by children, were still quite common. See <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9666372>.)
|A sidewalk bottled water display outside an organic market. This display suggests that the anti-BW campaign is longer on rhetoric than actual market impact.|
2. Bottled water is an absolutely critical lifesaver in many natural disasters. Check the lists of emergency supplies put out by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.i
Look at the pictures of the Hurricane Katrina aftermath and other calamities. In almost all such events, public water systems are made unusable almost immediately, sometimes for a long time. Then it’s BW or death by thirst or toxic poisoning. I would hope Friends think long and hard before joining efforts to make this resource more scarce.
3. Bottled water is not a significant contributor to actual water problems. This is a very important point, so before going any further let me repeat that water problems are very real in the world, and in the U.S. But all the BW in the U.S. accounts for less than one hundredth of one percent of water consumption.ii If it all disappeared tomorrow, this would have no measurable effect on the very real water problems the U.S. faces (ditto the world).
4. Bottled water has a substantial shelf life. This is especially valuable for emergency preparedness, but also for many other purposes.
5. The anti-BW indictment paints the product as an intolerable luxury, pointing out that its price can be several dollars per gallon. But of course, one typically does not buy BW by the gallon, but by the pint. And in such serving sizes, BW is in fact within the economic reach of virtually all people in the United States. That’s why one finds it in the coolers of the humblest slum convenience stores, as well as the most elegant spas and food courts. Yet, paradoxically, costly as it is compared with tap water, BW is also the most realistically priced water in public use. Let me say that again: it is the most realistically priced form of water. That’s because if there’s one thing that’s just about beyond dispute regarding the real water issues, it is that solving them will mean that water is going to cost us more, probably a lot more. Buying BW can be useful in preparing us for that eventuality.iii
6. Bottled water is an excellent advertising medium—it conveys a sense of wholesomeness, which is well-deserved, and it is very serviceable for positive brand imaging. Using it as such, which I did, is not a crime. (I cite my own experience here, as well as that of thousands of other advertisers who use bottled water.)
7. The fact that only about one-fifth of plastic BW bottles are currently recycled is perhaps the most substantive item in the case against it, along with the fact that this plastic is made from petroleum. Surely, efforts at recycling need to increase, and oil consumption needs to decrease. Fortunately, there is light at the end of the tunnel: compostable water bottles made from plant products, without petroleum, are already coming onto the market,iv and BW in these containers is on sale in some areas. I predict it will soon be widely available in retail markets, providing a much more environmentally friendly option.
8. Bottled water is a nearly ideal consumer product: it is healthy, non-addictive, hypoallergenic, caffeine-free, calorie free, and contains no artificial colors, flavors, trans fats, etc., etc.
|A truckload of bottled water enroute to New Orleans after Katrina, donated by Wal-Mart.|
|National Private Truck Council|
9. Likewise, bottled water is neither militarist, sexist, racist, nor homophobic. Almost all classes and kinds of people use it.
These data suggest a quick quiz:
Which product would you rather have a child in your care consume several servings of each day?
- Caffeinated soda
- Sweetened juice drinks
- Bottled water
To anyone who picked the last alternative, here is another question: why support a campaign to demonize the healthiest of these products? In our consumer society, young people have numerous options for refreshment. Even once we have all simplified our lives in good Quaker fashion, it’s hard to imagine sugary, colored drinks, beer, or water, disappearing from the retail scene. (Drinking bubbly water is a custom that’s millennia old; “soda” has been around for more than 200 years; and lemonade 350.) Is it wise or even prudent to help stigmatize what would be by far the most wholesome choice among them?
10. Bottled water has a better safety record than tap water. If you doubt this, Google “public water contamination” and “bottled water recalls,” and compare the hits. Public water problems outscore BW problems by orders of magnitude, and have caused more than a few fatalities.
This is not an abstract issue for me. Where I live, in Cumberland County, North Carolina, public water safety issues have been an ongoing scandal;v there are citizens here being supplied bottled water by the state because authorities are unable to deliver safe water through the tap. And not far away, on and around the large Marine base at Camp Lejeune, N.C., the public water system was poisoned for decades by dry-cleaning toxins, affecting hundreds of thousands of people. And have you read the shocking story about dangerous levels of lead in the public water system in Washington, D.C., a scandal covered up by local officials for years? (<http://www.tftptf.com>) These are but a few of many cases. When it comes to public water contamination, denial is more than a river in Egypt.
This disparity in safety does not mean I want everyone to drink BW and abandon public water systems. Not at all; public water needs to be made as safe as possible, and BW is not the only alternative. But when the crusaders scorn bottled water because “tap water is safe,” they are repeating a talking point that does not withstand close scrutiny.
And here are the bonus reasons:
11. When there is a safety concern, bottled water is easier to identify for recall. An upside of the packaging that troubles some people also makes it easy to find and pull shipments that have issues.
12. Bottled water is fully portable, and thus versatile.
13. Bottled water is highly convenient for our complex and rushed lifestyles; and this convenience is not a crime or even a sin. Neither is it an offense against Quaker fundamentals; convenience can contribute to simplicity.
So that’s my list of reasons for finding bottled water “not guilty” of being an environmental or social blight. BW does not deserve to be banished from Quaker circles as a sign of spiritual, moral, and ecological depravity; nor are its users heedlessly ruining the planet.
I am not clear how or why the anti-bottled water crusaders selected BW as the symbol for water problems; my guess is that its high visibility was a key factor. But that is a marketing ploy, not a representation of truth about water issues and their solutions. As noted in #3, if bottled water disappeared, the real water problems would remain unaffected.
Perhaps the environmental movement needs a symbol to demonize for public education about water issues. If so, my preference would be a product which, if people did stop using it, the change would truly and positively impact water issues. To this end, I have two concrete suggestions for a new symbol/icon, and they are:
|The cheeseburger—an alternative negative icon|
1. The cheeseburger. Anti-BW arguments point out that it takes about three liters of water to produce one liter of bottled water. Okay, fair enough. Yet by contrast, it takes about 1,500 gallons of water to produce a single cheeseburger. That’s a ratio of about 2,000 to 1, burger for bottle. Moreover, in most of the world, 60 to 70 percent of total water consumption goes to crop irrigation, mainly to feed animals that are eaten, particularly cattle and hogs.vi So if one wanted to make a serious dent in actual water issues—a very desirable goal—crusading against cheeseburgers would point the propaganda guns at a real target instead of a bogus one.
The other suggested symbol is:
2. Las Vegas. (Or Phoenix; take your pick.) Talk about foolish luxuries—the U.S. cities that are built in deserts are unsustainable, enormous water and human disasters waiting to happen, indeed already starting to happen. (And keep in mind, when these disasters become full-blown catastrophes, bottled water in mass quantities will be a crucial survival item for the victims. See <http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601109&sid=a_b86mnWn9.w&refer=home>).
I hope Friends will consider these points before continuing to ride the bandwagon to nowhere represented by the anti-bottled water propaganda campaign. Water issues are too real and important to be thus diverted and trivialized.
For reference: There is a growing bibliography on water issues. The one piece I’ll mention here is a fine article, “The Last Drop,” from The New Yorker, which is online at <http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2006/10/23/061023fa_fact1>.
And a postscript is as necessary here as it is regrettable: I am not employed by a bottled water company; I have never been employed by a water company; I do not seek to be employed by a bottled water company. To my knowledge no bottled water producers have made grants or donations to my employer, and we are not seeking same.