Water at $10 a Gallon
This is the fifth of an eight-part series on environmental policy in conjunction with Macalester College's Environmental Studies Department.
Americans are addicted to bottled water. What we used to get though a state-of-the-art nationwide water supply infrastructure we now consume in over half a billion single use plastic bottles a week.
Some bottled waters cost more than $10 a gallon—significantly higher than gas, and as much as 100,000 times as expensive as tap water. This addiction is not only draining our pockets but deteriorating our health, polluting our environment and jeopardizing our basic human right to accessible, affordable and safe drinking water.
Many people purchase bottled water because they believe it’s healthier and cleaner. While pictures of pristine mountains and bubbling springs imply purity, 40 percent of bottled waters are sourced directly from ‘municipal sources’—the tap, according to several sources, including the Drinking Water Resource Foundation.
The Food and Drug Administration, which regulates bottled water, has roughly one staff person who ensures that bottled water companies across the country comply with federal regulations. The FDA requires only weekly quality tests, which can be done by the manufacturer with no independent oversight. Bottled water companies are not required to submit these quality reports for review by the FDA, even if health standards are violated.
The Natural Resource Defense Council conducted three independent lab tests of 103 bottled water brands. It found a third violated state or industry guidelines for at least one contaminate level. While not all tap water meets public safety standards 100% of the time, tests are run daily by certified laboratories. Municipal suppliers are also required to publish monthly reports on what’s in your water, and notify all consumers within 24 hours if standards are violated.
In addition to supply lines’ lax oversight, there are concerns with the actual bottles. Most single-use bottles are made from PET plastic, which may also pose health risks once water is bottled.
While PET plastic is generally inert, there is some concern that it can leach potentially harmful chemicals into water, including phthalates and antimony which are hormone disrupters. This leaching potentially increases as PET is heated, even to temperatures easily reachable inside a dishwasher or a car parked in the sun. Furthermore, when these porous plastic bottles are reused, the moist environment harbors bacterial growth, which can be harmful and is almost impossible to kill. However, more research is needed to attribute definitive effects.
Few realize how energy-intensive it is to produce, transport and dispose of bottled water. According to the Pacific Institute, a non-profit research council, it requires 17 million barrels of oil to produce the plastic for bottled water consumed in the United States; enough oil to fuel 1 million cars. When you factor in transportation and disposal, the total energy required by a single bottle of water can be equivalent to filling the bottled ¼ full of oil.
The Government Accountability Office found that 76.5% of plastic water bottles in the U.S. are thrown away. Other bottles are incinerated and release harmful chemicals into the air. While recycling is better than throwing bottles away, it’s often Minnesota taxpayers and local businesses that fund curbside recycling programs, not the companies profiting from bottled water sales. Furthermore, the waste problem isn’t solved by recycling. ‘Recycled’ bottles are actually ‘down cycled’: turned into lower quality products.
One of the worst aspects of the $10 billion bottled water industry is its detrimental effects on the municipal water system. The United Nations has declared access to safe and affordable water a basic human right. But, because more people are consuming bottled water, states have less revenue to upkeep their municipal supply, which may lead to deteriorating quality of public water.
While bottled water may be useful during natural disasters or emergencies, we choose to consume water from single-use bottles over our taps every day. It’s like choosing to power your home with disposable batteries instead of connecting to the grid.
Some people argue that there is no substitute for the convenience of bottled water, but do we really need a bottle by our side every minute? Are taps with potable water in every bathroom not enough? Is it really that hard to remember a safe, reusable bottle?
Minnesotans and Americans need to be weaned from our bottled water addiction. Policymakers need to make it clear that our municipal supplies are safe. We need to lobby for more public drinking fountains and limit bottled water in schools and workplaces. We should show support for a Minnesota bottle bill; bottle bills place a five or 10 cent tax on plastic drink containers, which is returned to the consumer when recycled. States with bottle bills have recycling rates as high as 97%, and revenue from the program takes the burden of recycling off the public.
Here’s the bottom line, we cannot afford to pay $10 a gallon for water we can get from our tap almost for free.
Brianna Besch is a Macalester College Environmental Studies Major.