Aug. 22, 2007

Forgo bottled water -- and soda -- to save the planet

The bottled water industry is in the crosshairs of a debate about health, the environment, truth in marketing and the privatization of a public good for private gain. The criticism about this ubiquitous beverage springs from numerous sectors -- nongovernmental organizations, religious groups, government officials and restaurateurs.

The Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club and World Wildlife Federation are urging members and supporters to consume less bottled water to reduce waste and pollution and to conserve fossil fuels.

Citing concerns about economic justice, the environment and privatization of water, the United Church of Canada is advising its 590,000 members to stop buying bottled water to support its 2006 theme: "Living in right relation with the creation."

Several restaurants that have sustainability squarely on the menu -- including the celebrated Chez Panisse in Berkeley -- have stopped serving bottled water.

In a number of cities, citizens object to their tax dollars being spent on bottled water, and officials are promoting public drinking water. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom has issued an executive order ending the use of city money on bottled water for its employees. In Salt Lake City, Mayor Rocky Anderson has asked city officials to stop providing bottled water at meetings.

In response to growing pressure from groups such as Corporate Accountability International, PepsiCo agreed to identify on the labels the source of Aquafina: municipal water supplies. This is appropriate. Consumers have a right to know they're paying good money for a product that is available essentially free to everyone from the tap.

Globally, bottled water is a $46 billion industry. But the United States, where sales have increased an average of 10 percent annually for 15 years, is the biggest gulper. According to Beverage Marketing Corp. 2006 estimates, Americans consume 8.3 billion gallons of bottled water -- about 26 gallons per person a year.

Another key criticism of bottled water is the oil guzzled -- to make the plastic bottles, distribute the product and keep it cold. According to The New York Times, the National Resources Defense Council, importing 44 million gallons of bottled water to New York area ports from the European Union and Fiji in 2006 created nearly 4,000 tons of carbon dioxide -- the amount 790 cars emit in a year. Consumers have many reasons to choose the tap instead of swallowing the bottled water hype. But people who make food choices based on a considerations that go beyond what tastes good or what is healthy -- such as environmental, ethical and community considerations need to broaden the debate to include other bottled beverages. If we are truly concerned about maintaining access to safe and abundant public water, conserving energy, reducing waste (an estimated nine out of every 10 plastic bottles end up in landfills or littering our parks and streets), and shrinking our carbon footprint when we quench our thirst, then curbing our appetite for soft drinks would be a more effective strategy.

Why? First, though per capita consumption is declining, we still drink twice the amount of soda as bottled water. Second, the same water being co-opted for bottling under the Aquafina and Dasani labels is bottled (after adding sugar, flavorings and colorings) and sold as Coca-Cola and Pepsi. Third, Americans consume more calories from soft drinks than any other single food. Supplying enough high-fructose corn syrup to sweeten our 51-gallon per person annual soda habit requires a land area nearly twice the size of Rhode Island to grow the corn, and enough gasoline to manufacture the fertilizer and pesticides and power the machinery to till the land, irrigate, harvest and transport the crop needed to drive more than 6,000 Priuses from New York City to Los Angeles and back. For what? Liquid candy, unhealthy waistlines and a warmer planet.

Except in emergencies, moving water around -- filtered, carbonated, sweetened, vitamined or mineraled -- is a wasteful and ecologically insupportable use of fossil fuels.

What can consumers hooked on portable hydration but thirsting for ways to minimize their impact on the environment and maximize their health do? Plenty!

Quench your thirst with tap water and carry a refillable bottle. Corporate Accountability International offers 22-ounce aluminum bottles sporting the slogan "Think Outside the Bottle."

Find out if your community has a "bottle bill" -- where empty containers can be redeemed for pocket change. If the small change isn't worth the bother to you, it will be for someone. Organize a returnable bottle collection in your neighborhood to make it easier for the less fortunate in our communities to exchange bottles for needed cash.

Support policies that ensure the safety, quality and availability of public water. Promote investment in placement and maintenance of safe water fountains in schools, parks and public spaces.

When asked your choice of water at a restaurant, enthusiastically answer, "tap!"

That's smart drinking.

Jennifer Wilkins studies the connection between health and the food and agriculture system in Cornell's Division of Nutritional Sciences. This article was adapted from one of her monthly columns originally published in the Albany Times Union, Aug. 5.