Tapped Out: The Perils of Bottled Water

Bluesman Howlin' Wolf moaned in 1956, "I asked her for water, she brought me gasoline."

Sly and the Family Stone warned in 1969, "Don't let the plastic bring you down."

In 2007, you ask a waitress for a bottle of water, she still brings you gasoline. When we finish the bottle, the plastic brings us down.

In the chronicles of chasing our tail, the pursuit of purity gives us putrid environs. Americans more than doubled their purchases of personal-sized bottled water between 2002 and 2005, according to the Container Recycling Institute, from 13 billion bottles to nearly 28 billion bottles. The United States, only 5 percent of the world's population, accounts for 17 percent of global bottled water consumption, according to the Worldwatch Institute. As we take water itself for granted, so too do we ignore its waste and, as they say these days, its ecological footprint.

Nearly all such water comes in bottles derived from oil, commonly called PET for polyethylene terephthalate. Nationally only 14.5 percent of PET bottles for non-carbonated drinks were recycled, creating 2 million tons of trash that will not degrade for hundreds of years in landfills. The Container Recycling Institute says overall beverage container recycling has dropped from 53.5 percent in 1992 to 33.5 percent in 2004.

The institute calculates that if we were to go on a national campaign to increase beverage container recycling to 80 percent, the savings in greenhouse gas production would be the equivalent of taking 2.4 million cars off the road for a year. It says if the recycling content of plastic beverage bottles was 25 percent, that would save enough crude oil to electrify 680,000 American homes for a year.

"Beverage bottles and cans are not only a large portion of packaging, but are also some of the most easily recycled and most economically valuable materials in our waste stream," the institute said last year. "Replacing these cans and bottles with new containers made from virgin materials consumes substantive amounts of energy, water, and, increases dependence on foreign oil."

The ironies of bottled water are an iconic insult to our intelligence. Many companies imply their water is better than tap water even though bottled water is often tap water. Many companies imply that bottled "spring water" is healthier even though there is no evidence that such water is any better or worse than municipal supplies. Despite that, Americans are willing to pay far more for bottled water.

Even more ridiculous, we are howlin' wolves about $3-a-gallon gasoline. But those little bottles of water add up to as much as $10 a gallon, according to the Earth Policy Institute, a Washington environmental think tank. Some mayors are catching on. San Francisco just banned bottled water at city offices. New York is crusading to lure residents back to the tap. Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham reports that Boston City Hall employees last year quaffed $100,000 of bottled water.

The US Conference of Mayors, noting how Americans spend $11 billion on bottled water despite the $43 billion that local governments spend to deliver some of the best water in the world, last month passed a resolution calling for the "compilation of information regarding the importance of municipal water and the impact of bottled water on municipal waste."

These stirrings have the bottled water lobby gurgling in protest. The International Bottled Water Association said the San Francisco ban by Mayor Gavin Newsom was riddled with "misinformed statements." It claimed neither their bottles nor the production or transport of the bottles are environmental problems. The association cried that Newsom was depriving city employees of a healthy drink that "does not contain calories, caffeine, sugar, artificial flavors or colors, alcohol and other ingredients."

Talk about crying and howling wolf. By far, the two fastest-growing individual "liquid refreshment" brands in the United States, according to the Beverage Marketing Corporation, are Pepsi's Aquafina and Coke's Dasani. Both are bottled waters. Both are municipal water!

When Sly and the Family Stone sang about plastic, it was about fake people. There is nothing more fake than people who repackage tap water, then jack you up, calling it "liquid refreshment."

The next time you ask the waitress for bottled water, remember it costs more than gasoline.

Derrick Z. Jackson's e-mail address is jackson@globe.com.

(c) 2007 The Boston Globe

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