When I was younger my mother would lug 24 pack after 24 pack of plastic water bottles home from the store. In an active house of six, plastic water bottles seemed to be a very convenient option when we just couldn’t spare the extra minute to fill a re-usable bottle with ice and water between school and soccer practice. My dad would lecture my mom about how she was wasting money, followed by the typical “I remember when…” that we have all heard from our elders at one point or another. “I remember when water was free, when the thought of selling something that is free was absolute lunacy.” My brothers and I would scoff, brush him off, and remind ourselves we were living in a different time. In my naiveté, I didn’t realize my dad had a serious point. Indeed, plastic water bottles are costly. In fact they are about 2,000 times more expensive than getting water from the tap. Aside from the monetary cost, they also have huge costs to the environment and even human rights.
After taking my first environmental class in high school I became aware of one of the major costs that plastic water bottles present; an extreme amount of resource extraction and waste. Each year, 17 billion barrels of oil are used to create plastic water bottles. In addition, it takes three times as much water to produce a single bottle than the amount of water used to fill it. Not only does the process of production use an excessive amount of resources, but the amount of waste after these single use items are discarded present another problem.
A study conducted by the Container Recycling Institute (CRI) in 2010 revealed that the United States used 42.6 billion single-serving (1 liter or less) plastic water bottles. That’s a whole lot of plastic, but at least we recycle it, right? While the option to recycle is there, only two out of ten bottles were recycled. The other eight out of the ten either ended up in landfills where it takes over 1,000 years to decompose, or incinerated which releases toxic fumes, or as litter which ends up in the oceans and effects marine life. The plastic photo-degrades but it does not biodegrade, meaning it breaks down into infinitesimally smaller pieces but still floats around. Marine animals like the albatross confuse the plastic for plankton and end up consuming these bits and pieces. As a result, the plastic disrupts their endocrine system which can often be fatal. These unfortunate animals aren’t the only species being negatively impacted by the plastic water bottle industry.
In 2010 the U.N. formally agreed that water was a fundamental human right. However, the privatization of a natural resource such as water seems to indicate that it is being viewed as a commodity rather than a right. The plastic water bottle industry promotes the privatization of water, which interferes with the ability of communities to guarantee the right to water for all. According to a study conducted by the Food and Water Watch in 2009, 47.9% of all bottled water is sourced from the tap. This results in less water availability for the surrounding communities and also creates a false sense of purity for the consumer.
Many people believe that the water in plastic bottles is cleaner than tap water. In the 1970’s, campaigns were launched to instill fear in the public about tap water. This was a tactic to get people to support an industry that people like my dad thought was unnecessary. Claims that the water was impure and riddled with chemicals were very popular. Although it is tempting to believe that bottled water is more pristine than the regular old tap water, this is not always the case. There is actually less regulation within the plastic water bottle industry than with the public water services many of us receive. As a result of pressure from organizations like Corporate Accountability International that aim to hold corporations accountable for their actions, both Coke and Pepsi have publicly declared that their water is sourced from the tap. This is very significant because it reveals to the public the truth about what exactly is being purchased. Essentially, these companies are selling tap water at 2,000 times the cost, as we learned earlier, without anything to warrant its cost.
While some may argue that these private companies have more finances to maintain a water system better than the government, cities that have switched to private water have experienced problems such as water quality issues, rate hikes, environmental abuses, and more. When water was privatized in Great Britain, water and sewerage pricing increased 67 percent between 1989 and 1995, leaving the poor out of their right to water. In another case, when Sydney, Australia’s water was overtaken by Suez Lyonnaise des Eaux in 1998 their water became contaminated with high levels of giardia and cryptosporidium. These bacteria are not something you want in your water as they can lead to intestinal infections. These statistics lead me to believe it is an urban myth that privatized water is cleaner than water received from a public system.
Today, U.S.’s public water system is underfunded by about $24 billion. While this is a complex issue with many factors causing this disparity, one thing we as consumers can do is boycott plastic water bottles to make a statement about what we want to invest in and what we do not. As citizens, we can use our voting power as well as write letters to governors, senators, maybe even the president about our concern for the infrastructure providing water in the United States.
Living in a city where water boil advisories are issued a few times a year, it makes sense to have back-up water supplies. The lure and the convenience of plastic water bottles as an emergency plan is understandable. However, the implications that go along with the private water industry are much more complex than my father’s concern about the expense all those years ago. It might be good to think twice before buying those plastic water bottles regularly. Choosing not to purchase plastic water bottles can save money, reduce the resources that go into the process as well as the harmful waste produced, and can promote water as a right, not a privilege, by keeping water in the public rather than private sector.
For more information, check out Corporate Accountability International’s website:
“The Story of Bottled Water” provides an entertaining an clear explanation of the plastic water bottle issue: