article from Global Shift:
Recently, author Peter Gleick sat down with Fresh Air host Terry Gross to discuss his new book Bottled and Sold, in which he answers a lot of questions about bottled water: Where does it come from? Who regulates it? And what happens to all of those plastic bottles? Gleick is a water expert who was named a MacArthur fellow in 2003, so he clearly knows his stuff. And once you hear what he has to say, it will make it hard to purchase another bottle unless you are literally dying of thirst.
Let’s start with the environmental impact of the plastic water bottle. In the United States, every minute of every day a thousand plastic water bottles are opened, consumed and discarded. About 30% of the bottles are recycled. The other 70% go to landfill where they will lie pretty much forever.
If the 30% that get recycled were made into more water bottles, this would be a good thing. But they aren’t. They are sent to China and made into things like polyester fabric and rugs. The problem with this is that plastic bottles are made out of a plastic called PET, aka polyethylene terephthalate, aka the bottles with the number one on the bottom. This type of plastic is excellent for storing food (it’s durable, impervious to heat, light weight and strong), but it’s terrible for the environment. What happens to the bottles is actually called down cycling rather than recycling. Not only are the bottles shipped across a very big ocean (which takes a lot of energy) but in order to make new bottles manufacturers must use raw petroleum, a very expensive material to make new, virgin PET, most of which of ends up in landfill.
BOTTLED IS BETTER?
But what about the health benefits from drinking pure spring water rather than the filthy dreck from your local water supply? Well, this is also an area murkier than water commercials lead you to believe. Apparently, bottled water and tap water are managed in very different ways. Tap water is managed by the Environmental Protection Agency. In large cities it is tested dozens of times daily. Bottled water is managed by the Food and Drug Administration but only if it’s sold in a different state than where it’s manufactured. If it’s sold in the same state, it’s not regulated. So, 60-70% of bottled water is not regulated in the first place. The 30-40% that travels over state lines is tested anywhere from once a week to once a month to once a year.
And something going wrong with either of these water supplies is also handled very differently. If something contaminates a municipal water supply, consumers are warned immediately. When bottled water is contaminated, consumers are told months after the fact (and only if you write and write to the FDA using the Freedom of Information Act).
According to Gleick, there have been all sorts of bottled water contamination of which the public is largely unaware — scary contamination with things such as mold, kerosene, algae, yeast, fecal coliforms (gross) and other bacteria, glass particles and even crickets.
Gleick says that the answer to this problem is not to simply drink unfiltered tap water, because who knows what the heck is in there. He says, “I think one of the concerns with tap water is that long after the water system, the municipal water systems were built, new chemicals were dumped into… lakes and rivers and so on, and so that there’s all kinds of pollutants in the water that our system was never designed to filter out and that the EPA doesn’t necessarily even test for. So in that sense, you don’t know what you’re drinking.”
He then goes on to add, “Our tap water is not as good as it could be. It’s good, but it ought to be better, and one of the reasons people move to bottled water is because they either are afraid that our tap water system isn’t good enough, or it isn’t. And it ought to be fixed. The answer to problems with our tap water isn’t bottled water, though. We can’t afford bottled water for everybody, and I think it would be a big mistake to let our tap water systems decay.”
After hearing this interview we bought one of those screw-on filters for our kitchen tap. We also carry stainless steel water bottles around. I remember as a kid drinking straight from the hose while we played outside. At least then we knew when we accidentally consumed crickets.
You can hear the whole interview here.