Tap Dance: From Municipal Source to “Pristine” Bottled Stream: Which Bottled Water Do You Buy?

by Adrianna Kuzma

On a hot summer day, a bottle of cold water tastes gloriously refreshing, but have you ever looked into what bottled water actually contains? When looking at a label on a bottle of water, you might think it comes from a natural spring. In reality, about 25 % of bottled water comes from municipal taps (private). Ad agencies tap dance around four problems with bottled water: the quality, the plastic bottle, the transportation, and the disposal issue.

Teens examine the label of a water bottle. In some cases, the label will specify that the water derives from a city or municipal source. “Coke’s Dasani: Pure Water or Pure Hype?” Yahoo Daily News. 4 March 2004.

The first problem is the quality. As noted, the label often includes misleading phrases such as “natural spring water.” With images of glistening crystal clear mountain streams, the bottled water companies advertise the purity of their water as if it is more pure and safer than tap water. This has been called a scam and “modern day snake oil” (Scott). Others point out that bottled water, which falls under the Food and Drug Administration, is not as frequently or fully regulated as municipal water. In a four year 1000 bottle study of bacterial and other contaminants, the Natural Resource Defense Council found that “While most bottled water apparently is of good quality, publicly available monitoring data are scarce. The underfunded and haphazard patchwork of regulatory programs has found numerous cases where bottled water has been contaminated at levels above state or federal standards. In some cases bottled water has been recalled” (Olson). Clearly, these companies achieve their growing sales based on their message that bottled water is cleaner, purer and safer than tap water.

An overview of advertising methods used to sell this message as well as the path of a bottle of water from production to consumption is seen in a short You Tube video titled “The Story of Bottled Water.” The film explains that the bottled water industry has used sophisticated advertising campaigns and a false promise of purity to sell water at highly inflated prices. Ironically, as the video shows, this packaging of their supposedly environmentally cleaner and safer water is achieved at the expense of our environment.

“The Story of Bottled Water.” 2010. The Story of Stuff and Free Range Studios. Corporate Accountability International, Food and Water Watch and other Environmental groups, 17 March 2010.

What the water bottle companies do to the tap water they receive is strip it of the chlorine and fluoride. For the tap water, hydrologists put in chlorine to prevent pathogens from growing in the water when it goes through the hundreds of miles of pipes to arrive at a person’s house. They also add fluoride to prevent cavities (a fact parents of small children need to consider). The bottled water companies strip the tap water of these important chemicals then put the water into plastic bottles.

A common sight is a trash can overflowing with water bottles. Theen, Andrew. “Ivy Colleges Shunning Bottled Water Jab At $22 Billion Industry.” Bloomberg. 7 March 2012 http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-03-07/ivy-colleges-shunning-bottled-water-jab-at-22-billion-industry.html

The second problem is the plastic bottle itself. Processing the bottles takes the equivalent of 17 million barrels of crude oil every year (Didier). According to this same National Geographic source, this amount of crude oil could power the engines of 1 million vehicles annually (Didier). With the ongoing gas shortage, we should be reserving petroleum for transportation, but this oil is used for water bottles and tossed out. That is why it is so crucial that the bottle is put into a recycle bin instead of the trash. However, that rarely happens. Bottle water is a convenience purchase; lacking a recycling bin, consumers usually toss the bottles in trash bins, and they end up in landfills.

This illustration highlights the many problems with bottled water, from depleting limited oil reserves, to polluting the environment, to falsely claiming superiority to tap water.  “We Really Need to Think Before We Drink: More Reasons To NOT Use Bottled Water.” Multipure. 31 July 2012 http://katstoolbox.com/greenwater/

The third problem is transporting and storing water bottles. To get bottled water from its source to the bottling plant to a distributor and store (not to mention landfill or recycling center) all consumes additional petroleum, and this is problematic for our already overburdened environment by producing greenhouse gases. Keep in mind that just one gallon of diesel (or gasoline) releases an astounding 20–22 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere (“Pocket”). So, in addition to the crude oil used to manufacture the plastic bottles, the distribution and transport of the bottles consumes shrinking gasoline resources.

When a shipment of bottled water comes to a store, the patrons expect clean water. As the truck is driving under the hot summer sun, inside the truck the heat from the sun is warming the water, allowing the growth of pathogens inside the bottle. After arriving at a convenience store, the bottles may be stored for display in the front window, further heating the water in the bottles. According to the Natural Resource Defense Council, “One study found that water that had been stored for 10 weeks in plastic and in glass bottles contained phthalates, suggesting that the chemicals could be coming from the plastic cap or liner” (Olson, et.al. ). The kind of testing and reporting frequency required of municipalities providing water—not to mention penalties for not meeting standards– are absent for bottled water.

Heat can affect the quality of bottled water. “Nine Reasons To Ditch The Bottle Once And For All.”  EcoSalon  7 July  2010 http://ecosalon.com/9-ways-to-ditch-the-bottle-once-and-for-all/

Once purchased, the bottle might be tossed in the back of a car, furthering the heat exposure. What people do not realize is that pathogens could grow in the water, with the potential to infect someone. Whereas a city must test for coliform bacteria a minimum of one hundred times a month, bottled water plants test once a week (Olson). So, while bottled water companies have successfully manufactured the demand for their product as preferable to tap water, in reality it is more likely that your next drink of bottled water could be much less safe than turning on your tap.

The fourth problem involves disposal. As soon as the water is consumed, the bottle is thrown into the trash. The bottle should go in the recycle bin instead of the trash. If the bottle is thrown into the garbage, it takes a long journey to a landfill, where the plastic bottles take up a lot of space. Moreover, the plastic does not biodegrade into soil.

For an interesting comparison, see Doug James. Twenty First Century Waterfall.  Computer animation comparing the US rate of plastic water bottle recycling (approx. 100 bottles/second) to the non-recycled rate (approx. 845 bottles/second; see image) for 2005. You Tube. 29 July 2007.

This bar graph shows that most plastic bottles are thrown away rather than recycled (the type of ultra-clear plastic bottle used for bottled water is commonly abbreviated as PET, which stands for poly(ethylene terephthalate). “Recycling Rates Are Kicking Our Cans.” Grinning Planet. 18 Aug. 1995. http://www.grinningplanet.com/2004/10-05/recycler-recycling-article.htm

Or the bottle is put on to a barge which is then shipped all the way to India and dumped into their backyard. If it entirely misses the trash, the plastic bottle might fall into a ditch. Rain water then washes it down the drain where it gets carried to a river and is eventually washed out into the ocean. Gradually, the bottle collapses from the waves, breaking down the plastic into bits. Mistaking these broken bits for food, small fish ingest the plastic. Scientists have found large islands of plastic, and fish have died from ingesting little pieces of plastic.

Bits of plastic found inside a fish. Claire Le Guern Lytle “When the Mermaids Cry: The Great Plastic Tide.” Plastic Pollution. Coastal Care. Web. 20 Aug. 2012.  http://coastalcare.org/2009/11/plastic-pollution/

Teens can see through the tap dance of the bottled water sales campaign that sidesteps issues such as the overabundance of plastic bottle trash and an increasing carbon emission caused by the manufacture and sale bottled water. Because we see through advertising gimmicks, homeschooling teens can lead the way by taking along– and showing off– refillable water bottles at sporting events, picnics, or other all-day events. Several studies find that homeschool teens show leadership and involvement in community service (ctd. In Ray).  Homeschooling teens can lead the way because we are often no stranger to community involvement, and our efforts can demonstrate the ethic of environmental stewardship.

Bottled water is essential in an emergency situation such as Katrina, Haiti, or a tsunami. In daily life, however, there is less justification for routinely buying bottled water. Moreover, bottled water is not automatically better than tap. Occasionally purchasing bottled water is understandable. For example, bottled water may be necessary if a person forgot to bring water with them on a trip or a long hike where water fountains are not available. There are legitimate reasons to drink bottled water regularly, such as when a person’s immune system is compromised, and they need to avoid chlorine or fluoride. However, this is not the case for most of those who routinely consume bottled water in place of tap. The amount of bottled water consumed in the United States suggests there’s a need to get off the bottle. A good way to avoid falling for the song and tap dance of modern ad campaigns– and routinely purchasing bottled water– is to buy your own container and fill it–from the tap.

Works Cited

“Coke’s Dasani: Pure Water or Pure Hype?” Yahoo Daily News.  4 March 2004.

Didier, Suzanna. “Water Bottle Pollution Facts.” National Geographic.  Green Living 2011. Web. 20 Aug. 2012.   http://greenliving.nationalgeographic.com/water-bottle-pollution-2947.html

Gitlitz, Jennifer and Pat Franklin. “Water, Water Everywhere: The Growth of Non-Carbonated Beverages in the United States.”  Container Recycling Institute. Feb. 2007.  Web 18 Aug. 2012. http://www.container-recycling.org/assets/pdfs/reports/2007-waterwater.pdf

James, Doug. Twenty-First Century Waterfall: Animating Water Bottle Recycling Rates Web. 21 Aug. 2012.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OZbTXDkrD1o

Le Guern Lytle, Claire. “When the Mermaids Cry: The Great Plastic Tide.” Plastic Pollution. Coastal Care. Web. 20 Aug. 2012. http://coastalcare.org/2009/11/plastic-pollution/

“Nine Reasons To Ditch The Bottle Once And For All.”  EcoSalon  7 July  2010.  Web. 22 Aug. 2012.   http://ecosalon.com/9-ways-to-ditch-the-bottle-once-and-for-all/

Olson, Erik.  “Bottled Water:Pure Drink or Pure Hype?” Natural Resource Defense Council. 25 Sept. 2000. Web. 21 Aug. 2012.  http://www.nrdc.org/water/drinking/qbw.asp#safer

Pocket Change: Small Actions Can Make Big Green Impacts.” Brochure. Global Institute of Sustainability. 2006. Arizona State University.

“Private Drinking Water in Connecticut.”  No. 5 Frequently Asked Questions About Bottled Water.    Environmental Health Section,  Private Well Program.  April 2009 Web. 21 Aug. 2012.  The State of Connecticut Department of Public Health http://www.ncdhd.org/Forms/FluorideBottledWater.pdf

Ray, Brian D.  “Research Facts on Homeschooling.” Exploring Homeschooling.  10 July 2006. Web 18 Aug. 2012.  http://www.exploringhomeschooling.com/ResearchFactsonHomeschooling.aspx

“Recycling Rates Are Kicking Our Cans.” Grinning Planet. 18 Aug. 1995. http://www.grinningplanet.com/2004/10-05/recycler-recycling-article.htm

Scott, Susan.  “Bottled Water is Damaging to Environment.”  Ocean Watch.   28 March 2008.  Web 18 Aug. 2012.  http://www.susanscott.net/OceanWatch2008/mar-28-08.html

“The Story of Bottled Water.” 2010.  The Story of Stuff and Free Range Studios.  Corporate Accountability International,  Food and Water Watch and other Environmental groups, 17 March 2010 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Se12y9hSOM0

Theen, Andrew. ”Ivy Colleges Shunning Bottled Water Jab At $22 Billion Industry.” Bloomberg   7 March 2012            http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-03-07/ivy-colleges-shunning-bottled-water-jab-at-22-billion-industry.html

“We Really Need to Think Before We Drink: More Reasons To NOT Use Bottled Water.” Multipure. 31 July 2012 http://katstoolbox.com/greenwater/

About the Author: Adrianna is a homeschooler from Indiana. She loves to sew and has made Regency ball gowns as well as fleece pet beds. She plays the cello, loves cats, and is passionate about caring for the planet. She recently produced a video on bottled water that won a national award.

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