Bottled water a good idea?

The most valuable natural resource on the planet besides air, fresh water is becoming scarcer throughout the world. Over 2 billion people worldwide lack access to safe, potable drinking water. In the Middle East and elsewhere, the lack of water has fueled the frequent wars of recent times. Climate change and unsustainable agricultural practices are reducing the supply of available water, and the ability to grow food, for much of the increasing world population.

Nowadays, anyone building a new house in northwest Connecticut who lives within 200 feet of a municipal water line is required to use water from the licensed private monopoly for their town (in Salisbury, the Aquarion Water Company, a subsidiary of Eversource) rather than from a well. Water is no longer free and fees have been increasing. 

Fortunately for us, the Northwest Corner has excellent water, and the aquifers are generally full. Pollution, while present, is considerably lower than in much of the rest of the country. And, with the exception of a few towns such as Sharon with very hard water, local water is eminently potable. For those who may require additional purification, portable, under counter, or whole house water filtration units are readily available, effective and reasonably priced. 

Throughout the country, drinking fountains and office water coolers are much less common than they used to be. Instead people are more and more slaking their thirst with water bought in bottles. Nearly 14 billion gallons of bottled water are sold in the U.S. each year, up from fewer than a billion gallons a generation ago. Much of this increase has come from users who have switched over from carbonated sodas to fresh water. But despite popular belief that all bottled water comes from special aquifers or springs, roughly half is actually tap water that has been “purified” by various means such as distillation, de-ionization, reverse osmosis or the blessing of its bottlers.

It takes nearly three times as much water to produce a plastic water bottle as is contained in the bottle itself. Most bottled water is sold in small, individual size polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic bottles (more than 29 billion of them in the U.S. per year), fewer than 20 percent of which gets recycled (globally, fewer than 10 percent.) The remainder mostly end up along roadsides, in landfills, or in the ocean.  

Although the makers of Evian water have said that they would make all of their bottles out of recycled plastic by 2025, this is not the case in most of the bottled water industry at present, not only because too small a proportion of PET bottles are recycled but also because the material degrades and is only viable as material for new bottles for a few cycles. Currently, PET bottles for both water and soft drinks typically only use between 5 and 10 percent recycled material in their bottles. 

“Biodegradable” plastic containers made from vegetable material such as hemp and sugar cane are starting to become available but are only compostable under special favorable circumstances, not in the sea, in landfills or a home compost pile; also, their environmental footprint at present is almost as large as PET containers. Furthermore, most varieties still contain a significant proportion of plastic so that even if they do “biodegrade,” much of the resulting material, however small, is plastic of one kind or another and not a healthy addition to the soil or the food chain. 

Reusable plastic water bottles made from low density polyethylene ((LDPE), polycarbonate or a proprietary plastic called Tritan, have also become popular with each type touting that it is “BPA free.” BPA (bisphenol A) is a chemical used to make certain plastics including a coating found on the inside of aluminum soda cans and is considered by many people to cause harmful health effects.

Various environmental organizations including the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council have urged their supporters to consume less bottled water, saying that it is no better than tap water and emphasizing the detrimental effects of disposable plastic bottles.

An environmentally better system than drinking water from either disposable or reusable plastic bottles is, however, readily available. Individual glass or stainless steel bottles, available in many sizes, can be washed and refilled indefinitely and are usually dishwasher safe. They can save significant money (a single bottle of water purchased in the U.S. costs as much as a carbonated soft drink) and a user can avoid the fear of water contamination from a plastic bottle. Glass water bottles are often sold with integral sleeves that prevent breaking if dropped. Many stainless steel bottles can now be bought double walled and insulated and can keep liquids either hot or cold for many hours.

Lakeville, Conn., architect and landscape designer Mac Gordon writes frequently about environmental matters.