Monday, January 28, 2008

The Plague of Bottled Water

A hundred and sixty-five miles off the coast of Nova Scotia, Sable Island was once a graveyard of shipping. Today it is, among other things, a unique environmental monitoring platform, where universities and government agencies measure weather, the magnetic field of the earth, and the quality and composition of the air and water. Among the pollutants the researchers encounter are pesticides banned since the 1960s but still circulating in the air, contaminants used only in China – and thousands of plastic water bottles.

Plastic water bottles?

Yep. If you want to do something for the environment, and also prove you are not a gullible mutton-head, then stop drinking bottled water – now.

In 1976, the average American drank less than two gallons of bottled water a year. Today, that figure is 30 gallons, and sales are growing at more than 10% a year – faster than any other beverage. Bottled-water companies spend hundreds of millions a year on advertising – and Americans now spend $15 billion a year on bottled water. No doubt the figures would be comparable in Canada.

But bottled water is a scam, a triumph of brilliant marketing and knavish politics. The bottled-water industry routinely implies that the water from your taps, supplied by a municipal water authority, is not clean enough to drink. It further implies that bottled water is drawn from pristine natural sources, and is naturally cleaner and purer than tap water.

In fact, about 40% of bottled water actually is tap water. The biggest-selling brands are Aquafina, which is owned by Pepsi, and Dasani, which is owned by Coke. As Pepsi was forced to admit last summer, both brands are just filtered tap water -- with an outrageous mark-up.

In Tucson, reports the Arizona Daily Star, Aquafina costs $1.39 per half-litre bottle. The contents come from the Tucson municipal water system, which provides 6.4 gallons for a penny. The Aquafina consumer is paying roughly 7000 times more for the same water.

Furthermore, many bottled-water companies are actually less rigorous in testing for purity and quality than are the municipal systems. One process used to enhance tap water is ozonation, which has a byproduct called bromate, a suspected carcinogen. In 2004, when Coca Cola launched Dasani in the United Kingdom, the company was embarrassed to discover that about half a million bottles were contaminated with excess bromate.

In other words, the quality of the water was better before it was “purified.” The company withdrew the tainted water – and also withdrew from the UK bottled-water market.

The environmental impact of the bottled-water rip-off is stunning. The US produces 29 billion water bottles every year, using the equivalent of 17 million barrels of oil. The bottles are designed for one-time use, and shouldn't be re-used, because contaminants from the low-grade plastic may leach into the contents. Environmental groups estimate that only about 14% of the bottles are recycled. More than 80% of them end up in landfills, or in places like the beaches of Sable Island.

Once bottled, the product is shipped enormous distances to market, nearly 25% of it travelling far enough to cross a national border before being sold. The Pacific Institute estimates that the energy used for pumping, processing, transportation, and refrigeration represents another 50 million-plus barrels of oil equivalent—enough to run 3 million cars for a year.

The political implications are equally obnoxious. Private water promotion is a steady drumbeat of insinuation that public water supplies are inferior and dangerous, and that private supplies are safe and secure. Just like public schools versus private ones, or public transport versus private cars, or public health care versus private health care.

Happily, municipalities are taking offence. Last June, the U.S. Conference of Mayors noted that their 1100 cities spend $43 billion a year to provide clean drinking water to citizens – and yet city officials often purchased bottled water for city employees. Led by San Francisco, Salt Lake City and Minneapolis, the group called for an impartial investigation into the environmental effects of bottled water. San Francisco subsequently ordered a complete ban on bottled-water purchases from public funds, as did the state of Illinois. Los Angeles has had such a ban for a decade.

“There's a sucker born every minute,” said circus magnate P. T. Barnum. And what the suckers are sucking on today are beautifully-labelled plastic bottles of water, adorned by blue mountain peaks with white glacier caps.

When gasoline prices rise much above a dollar a litre, consumers vigorously object – but they cheerfully pay three or four times that much for tap water in designer bottles. Barnum would have loved it.

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woodpecker said...

I agree with your comments in general (see a similar article below). However, tap water in Halifax contains fluoride and is delivered through lead pipes in some places (e.g., my house). Chlorine (javex) isn't great either, but can be taken out by home filters. Some well water has high levels of arsenic - and I wouldn't drink California tap water that I have seen either. See article on fluoridation as follows.


Plague of Plastic Chokes the Seas
On Midway Atoll, 40% of albatross chicks die, their bellies full of trash. Swirling masses of drifting debris pollute remote beaches and snare wildlife.
By Kenneth R. Weiss, LA Times Staff Writer
August 2, 2006

MIDWAY ATOLL -- The albatross chick jumped to its feet, eyes alert and focused. At 5 months, it stood 18 inches tall and was fully feathered except for the fuzz that fringed its head.

All attitude, the chick straightened up and clacked its beak at a visitor, then rocked back and dangled webbed feet in the air to cool them in the afternoon breeze.

The next afternoon, the chick ignored passersby. The bird was flopped on its belly, its legs splayed awkwardly. Its wings drooped in the hot sun. A few hours later, the chick was dead.

John Klavitter, a wildlife biologist, turned the bird over and cut it open with a knife. Probing its innards with a gloved hand, he pulled out a yellowish sac — its stomach.

Out tumbled a collection of red, blue and orange bottle caps, a black spray nozzle, part of a green comb, a white golf tee and a clump of tiny dark squid beaks ensnared in a tangle of fishing line.

"This is pretty typical," said Klavitter, who is stationed at the atoll for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "We often find cigarette lighters, bucket handles, toothbrushes, syringes, toy soldiers — anything made out of plastic."

It's all part of a tide of plastic debris that has spread throughout the world's oceans, posing a lethal hazard to wildlife, even here, more than 1,000 miles from the nearest city.

Midway, an atoll halfway between North America and Japan, has no industrial centers, no fast-food joints with overflowing trash cans, and only a few dozen people.

Its isolation would seem to make it an ideal rookery for seabirds, especially Laysan albatross, which lay their eggs and hatch their young here each winter. For their first six months of life, the chicks depend entirely on their parents for nourishment. The adults forage at sea and bring back high-calorie takeout: a slurry of partly digested squid and flying-fish eggs.

As they scour the ocean surface for this sustenance, albatross encounter vast expanses of floating junk. They pick up all manner of plastic debris, mistaking it for food.

As a result, the regurgitated payload flowing down their chicks' gullets now includes Lego blocks, clothespins, fishing lures and other pieces of plastic that can perforate the stomach or block the gizzard or esophagus. The sheer volume of plastic inside a chick can leave little room for food and liquid.

Of the 500,000 albatross chicks born here each year, about 200,000 die, mostly from dehydration or starvation. A two-year study funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency showed that chicks that died from those causes had twice as much plastic in their stomachs as those that died for other reasons.

The atoll is littered with decomposing remains, grisly wreaths of feathers and bone surrounding colorful piles of bottle caps, plastic dinosaurs, checkers, highlighter pens, perfume bottles, fishing line and small Styrofoam balls. Klavitter has calculated that albatross feed their chicks about 5 tons of plastic a year at Midway.

Albatross fly hundreds of miles in their search for food for their young. Their flight paths from Midway often take them over what is perhaps the world's largest dump: a slowly rotating mass of trash-laden water about twice the size of Texas.

This is known as the Eastern Garbage Patch, part of a system of currents called the North Pacific subtropical gyre. Located halfway between San Francisco and Hawaii, the garbage patch is an area of slack winds and sluggish currents where flotsam collects from around the Pacific, much like foam piling up in the calm center of a hot tub.

Curtis Ebbesmeyer has been studying the clockwise swirl of plastic debris so long, he talks about it as if he were tracking a beast.

"It moves around like a big animal without a leash," said Ebbesmeyer, an oceanographer in Seattle and leading expert on currents and marine debris. "When it gets close to an island, the garbage patch barfs, and you get a beach covered with this confetti of plastic."

Some oceanic trash washes ashore at Midway — laundry baskets, television tubes, beach sandals, soccer balls and other discards.

Nearly 90% of floating marine litter is plastic — supple, durable materials such as polyethylene and polypropylene, Styrofoam, nylon and saran.

About four-fifths of marine trash comes from land, swept by wind or washed by rain off highways and city streets, down streams and rivers, and out to sea.

Charlene said...

BRILLIANT. If I can convince my program offers to use "don't be a gullible mutton head" as a slogan for our 'get off the bottle' campaign at Clean Nova Scotia, I'll ensure you are credited! :)
Our tap water in Halifax is tested regularly -- I know that in one case, bottled water comes from a spring that is next door to the house of a trapper (friend of mine) who has a habit of burying animal carcasses on his property. Give me the tap water.
Fluoride and chlorine barely register compared to the great quanitites of garbage people willingly swallow otherwise (what's in cola? chemicals and sugar?). So I guess we just need to get the lead (pipes) out.