Bottled Water: A Private Conversation
by Kate MacDonald
Bottled water has become an icon of health, fitness, purity, and the natural. Seen initially as a status symbol and now as a necessity for all due to concerns over water safety, bottled water has evolved to become a staple in the everyday life of many North Americans. This has left municipal tap water a victim of prejudice. Today, however, one can hear the tides turning as a conversation regarding the privatization of water in all its forms laps against political shores around the world.
The bottled water industry has grown tremendously in the last twenty years. In the 1970s, the annual volume of water bottled and traded worldwide was 1 billion liters. By 2000, that number had risen to 84 billion liters as Coca-Cola, Pepsi Co. and Nestle entered the scene; sales were $22 billion that year. In 2005, Canadians alone spent $652.7 million on bottled water, all in the name of health, choice, and habit.
Though it is highlighted for its health characteristics owing to its pristine source, the Bottled W ater Association of Canada points out that over one quarter of bottled water is actually filtered tap water and undergoes less rigorous and less frequent testing than municipal water regulations require. It is recognized that there are places where the delivery of clean, safe water is impeded for any number of reasons and the use of bottled water may be necessary. Where this is the case, we must fight to have our governments step up and provide clean, safe, and accessible drinking water as a public good. Turning to the bottle is not the solution.
While we satisfy our lustful bottled water habit, distant areas of the world and people who remain out of sight are being affected. Bottling companies set up shop and pump hundreds of thousands of liters of water out of the area and transport it to foreign markets. The local population is left facing a drying landscape and an altered natural water cycle.
The need for a new dialogue around water is being met by a global movement calling for water to be recognized as a human right and for recognition of the devastating effects that the privatization of water is having worldwide. Ethical questions aside for a moment, one can still appreciate the dramatic ecological impacts the bottled water industry is having. There are huge transportation costs associated with bottled water as it often travels thousands of kilometres before finding itself on the shelves of your local corner store, gas station, grocery store, school, hospital, theatre, etc.
A second devastating result of bottled water is the fact of the bottles themselves. The plastic water bottles used by our large bottle companies in North America are made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET), a petroleum product. During the production of one kilogram of PET, 17.5 kilograms of water are used in the process and numerous air pollutants are emitted into the atmosphere. Although one might argue that these bottles can be recycled, 88% of bottles that are manufactured end up in the incinerator or landfill rather than in a recycling facility. In 2005, this was 65 000 tonnes of plastic bottles that were wasted.
Our addiction to the bottle is having dire consequences on human, plant, and animal communities, casting a shadow on the picture of purity and health that is associated with bottled water. So who does own the rain, the streams, the underground aquifers? And who should for that matter? Who will buy water for the poorest in our communities? Who will buy water for the trees, the fish, and the bees? How do we move forward to protect and manage our water resource as a common and public good? These are questions that must be part of the water dialogue.
Simple answers won’t come easily. The market alone is unable to answer such questions and hiding behind it as an overarching authority will not absolve us of the human responsibility to engage in the discussion. Reliance on the marketplace will, however, lengthen the time in which we do nothing while associated ecological and ethical consequences accumulate.
We need our governments to lead by example and support the provision and consumption of clean water as a local public good. W e also need leadership and a commitment to conserve and protect that local resource because, of course, another thread in this conversation is the over-consumption of water that defines North American economies and lifestyles.
We need a much deeper discussion than can be provided here. Indeed, it has already starting raining down on political and industrial ears around the world. The next time you are about to buy a $2 bottle of water in lieu of your tap water, you may want to stop and have an inner dialogue.
For additional Information, check out: Blue Covenant by Maude Barlow. McClelland & Stewart Ltd. 2007. The No-Nonsense Guide to Water by Maggie Black. New Internationalist Publications Ltd. 2004.
Blue Gold by Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke. Stoddart Publishing. 2002.