Is Bottled Water Truly as Pure as the Industry Would Like Us to Believe?
The NRDC hired three independent laboratories to conduct the testing of more than 1,000 plastic bottles — 103 different brands — and found that “about one third” the 103 brands contained “significant contamination,” that is, levels of chemical or bacterial contaminants that exceed federal and state standards. After the independent labs completed their research and testing, NRDC also hired an “independent data verification firm” to confirm the accuracy of the results. The data showed that nearly one in four of the bottled waters tested (23 of the 103 waters, or about 22%) “violated strict applicable state (California) limits for bottled water in at least one sample” (NRDC). The most commonly found contaminant was “arsenic” or other cancer-causing man-made compounds.
One in five of the bottles tested (that is 18 of 103, or 17%) contained “more bacteria than allowed under microbiological-purity guidelines” that have been adopted by some states, the industry, along with the European Union. The data released by the NRDC shows that about 33% of the 103 waters violated some “enforceable state standard” or otherwise exceeded microbiological-purity guidelines — or both.
About one-fifth of the 103 waters tested contained “synthetic organic chemicals” like toluene or xylene (industrial chemicals) or other chemicals like phthalate, adipate, or styrene that are used in manufacturing plastics.
Bottled Water Means a Big Plastic Waste Problem
Among the reasons that the Mother Nature Network opposes bottled water, according to Chris Baskind: it is not a good value; it is really not any healthier than tap water; it means “less attention to public systems” (people who switch to bottled water “have little incentive to support bond issues and other methods of upgrading municipal water treatment”); fresh water is becoming “humanitys most precious resource” but multinational corporations are “stepping in to purchase groundwater and distribution rights wherever they can” and the bottled water industry is a vital part of the plan for those corporations; and “bottled water means garbage” (it produces up to 1.5 million tons of plastic annually) (Baskind, 2010, p. 1).
On the subject of plastic waste, the “Great Garbage Patch” in the Pacific Ocean has received a great deal of attention, some of it deserved and some of the claims “are huge exaggerations” according to Emily Sohn, writing in Discovery News. The writer joined an expedition with the Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research and Education, traveling by boat between Hawaii to California. While the “patch” turned out to not to be twice the size of Texas, as many reports have asserted, Sohn said “plastic is everywhere” and it is insidious.
Nets were towed behind the boat on this research voyage; Sohn said the plastic was in great abundance but there were no enormous floating islands of plastic as the media had portrayed. Still if a person filled a thousand Nalgene water bottles from the North Pacific, “three to five would have one piece of plastic in them the size of an eraser,” according to Sohn. Small bits of plastic pose “a variety of threats” to the environment, according to the writer. They end up inside fish and eventually can work their way up the food chain. As the pieces of plastic break down, they release chemicals that are harmful for animals, for humans and for the quality of water in the oceans (Sohn).
Cities, Universities, and other Entities are Banning Plastic Water Bottles
In December, 2010, Seattle University in Washington State became the sixth university to cut off sales of plastic bottled water, according to the publication Buildings. The initiative that is behind the ban is called “Think Outside the Bottle” and the public relations thrust behind the effort is based on restoring faith in public tap water. The reasons behind the ban are many and obvious: one, tap water costs “thousands of times less than bottled water” (tap water in Seattle costs half a penny per gallon compared with $9.60 a gallon for bottled water; two, just two in ten plastic bottles are recycled, “creating waste that is not biodegradable”; and three, bottled water increases corporate control of existing water resources.
Mayors are also working to get people to use tap water rather than bottled water.
The U.S. Conference of Mayors (in 2008) passed a non-binding resolution that urges cities to “try to phase out government use of bottled water” whenever and wherever it is reasonable to do so (Simon, 2008). One of the co-authors of the resolution was Mayor Martin J. Chavez of Albuquerque. In an interview with Weekend Edition Saturday he said in his building employees are now bringing in their reusable bottles and filling up with tap water.
Chavez said he is aware that the industry is vigorously opposed to his resolution, and that lobbyists are out in force from the bottled water industry twisting arms and cajoling public officials at every turn. But he said, the “subtext” of the industrys pitch is that “somehow” water from plastic bottles “is safer or healthier” than water coming out of the tap. “Thats absolutely false,” he insisted, adding that the only “legitimate entrepreneurial perspective” is that bottled water is convenient. People that go on picnics, for example, prefer many times to take bottled water.
The interviewer, Scott Simon, posed a devils advocate question to Chavez during the interview. Lets say, he posed, some absolutely “pristine” water source from a “bubbling brook” in Finland is available; so that would no healthier than city water in Albuquerque? he asked
Chavez answered that it is not only “not any healthier” but by examining the carbon footprint that in involved in producing and then transporting that water, “its environmentally disastrous” (Simon, 2008). Chavez had some statistics up his sleeve during the interview. He posited that if every person in New York City gave up drinking out of plastic water bottles for a single week, they would save “24 million bottles from being landfilled” (Simon).
Counter Arguments — the Other Side of the Issue
An article in University Business asserts that the bans in universities “dont hold water” and there is no justification for this “silly prohibition” (Huang, 2009, p. 54). These actions ignore the “important reasons” why many people prefer bottled water, Huang insists. He says bottled water offers “predictable quality” and on the other hand tap water “periodically experiences” problems with quality that affects peoples health. Huang mentions several instances where tap water has been found to make people sick. At New York Presbyterian Hospital two patients died from Legionnaires disease that came through city water. Bottled water delivers “consistent results,” he asserts. And he adds that plastic bottles contribute “less” than 0.2% of solid waste.
There is positive news regarding the rate that people are recycling plastic bottles, as well. The International Bottled Water Association (IBWA) reports that the rate for PET plastic bottled water containers has “nearly doubled” in the past five years (Beverage Industry, 2011). Of course the data comes from a pro-bottled water source and the National Association of PET Container Recourses, another industry source, conducted the research. The report claims that the single serve size bottles (0.5-liter) up to the 5-gallon bulk bottles are being recycled at these above-mentioned numbers.
In 2004, the IBWA reported a 16.6% increase in recycling; in 2008 the IBWA reported a 30.9% increase, then in 2009 the increase was 31%. The VP of communications for IBWA, Tom Lauria, said the organization is “glad to see a significant, 37% jump” in the recycling of PET plastic bottles. The study was done using “extensive bale composition” data in 15 locations in 14 states.
Meanwhile Naya Spring Water, based in Canada, announced recently that all of its water will be bottled in 100% recycled plastic bottles. Whether that suits the conservation movement — all the organizations firmly opposed to the use of plastic — or not, on the surface it appears to be a positive move. “Were proud to be the first major spring water brand to introduce 100% recycled plastic bottles,” said Daniel Cotte, Naya Waters president (Waste & Recycling News). The Naya corporation sees this as a win for them in terms of image, a win for the environment, and a win for consumers “who enjoy bottled water and want to reduce their impact.”
Naya Spring Water asserts that the recycled plastic bottles are “FDA approved” and that it meets the same safety standards as virgin.