Friday, June 29, 2007

Water For Thought

Okay, we confess. In the Curmudgeon household, we consume a fair amount of bottled water. Seltzer water in quart bottles (the Curmudgeon's favorite) and plain old flat water in all kinds of shapes and sizes of bottles, sent off in school lunch boxes, camp daypacks, and soccer satchels, not to mention stashed into the cars for trips.

We do our best to recycle those plastic bottles the water comes in--probably better than most. But still, a few do end up in distant trash bins, from whence they likely end up in a landfill, where they will last for the next thousand years.

Perhaps its time for us to change. In this month's Fast Company, Charles Fishman writes in detail about the environmental costs of all that bottled water and suggests an alternative: your local tap. See "Message In A Bottle."

Noting that Americans spend $15 billion a year on bottled water, Fishman makes some good points:

Bottled water is the food phenomenon of our times. We--a generation raised on tap water and water fountains--drink a billion bottles of water a week, and we're raising a generation that views tap water with disdain and water fountains with suspicion. We've come to pay good money--two or three or four times the cost of gasoline--for a product we have always gotten, and can still get, for free, from taps in our homes.

The environmental costs don't just stop at the old landfill--there's the impact of moving all that water, which is quite large:

We're moving 1 billion bottles of water around a week in ships, trains, and trucks in the United States alone. That's a weekly convoy equivalent to 37,800 18-wheelers delivering water. (Water weighs 81/3 pounds a gallon. It's so heavy you can't fill an 18-wheeler with bottled water--you have to leave empty space.)

Moreover, while we luxuriate in bottled water we hardly need, others lack access to basic, clean drinking water. Take, for example, the residents of the island nation of Fiji:

[I]n Fiji, a state-of-the-art factory spins out more than a million bottles a day of the hippest bottled water on the U.S. market today, while more than half the people in Fiji do not have safe, reliable drinking water. Which means it is easier for the typical American in Beverly Hills or Baltimore to get a drink of safe, pure, refreshing Fiji water than it is for most people in Fiji.

Fishman points out that if you paid the same amount for tap water as for even cheap bottled water, your monthly water bill would be around $9000. Fishman observes the oxymoron that something "as clean and pure as water" nonetheless "leaves a contrail." For example:

San Pellegrino's 1-liter glass bottles--so much a part of the mystique of the water itself--weigh five times what plastic bottles weigh, dramatically adding to freight costs and energy consumption. The bottles are washed and rinsed, with mineral water, before being filled with sparkling Pellegrino--it uses up 2 liters of water to prepare the bottle for the liter we buy. The bubbles in San Pellegrino come naturally from the ground, as the label says, but not at the San Pellegrino source. Pellegrino chooses its CO2 carefully--it is extracted from supercarbonated volcanic springwaters in Tuscany, then trucked north and bubbled into Pellegrino.

Fishman finishes with a great question: Once you understand the resources mustered to deliver the bottle of water, it's reasonable to ask as you reach for the next bottle, not just "Does the value to me equal the 99 cents I'm about to spend?" but "Does the value equal the impact I'm about to leave behind?"

Tomorrow, when we head out to the McSoccerfest with the kids, we might just fill a few empty water bottles from out tap and see how it works out.


Anonymous said...

"Pellegrino chooses its CO2 carefully--it is extracted from supercarbonated volcanic springwaters in Tuscany, then trucked north and bubbled into Pellegrino."

Yum. No wonder its so tasty. Also, you should know that while the glass bottles--both the traditional pop-top liter, and the less traditional screw top 750ML--are available in the states, you see less and less of them. Indeed, I have three liters in my office now, all of them plastic, and all of them screw top.

Glass still reigns in Italy, though.

X Curmudgeon said...

We favor cherry-flavored Vintage seltzer water in the liter bottle. We've been trying to rationalize that it's ok to keep drinking seltzer water--or any carbonated water (like your San Pelligrino)--because you can't get that out of the tap at home. (Of course, we could move close to a volcano and make our own.)