Q: Why did you organize Spring to the Tap?
A: Spring to the Tap grew out of a school service project. The “Impact Project” is an assignment given to eighth grade students at Annie Wright Middle School to complete before they graduate. Four years ago, the President and Founder of Spring to the Tap was at the end of his eighth grade year and tasked with the project for which directions sounded simple enough: make a difference in your community. Feeling that the impact of volunteering for a few hours was not substantial enough to make a real difference, he began to think of ways he could do the project differently.
After multiple weeks of indecision, the short video called “The Story of Bottled Water” showing the issues surrounding bottled water from a simple yet multifaceted perspective, sparked an interest that (long story short) has led to a social-environmental awareness campaign in his hometown of Enumclaw, Washington. Since 2011 it has evolved into a 501(c)(3) nonprofit charitable organization, raised over $16,000 for a custom bronze public drinking water fountain, and led other efforts of raising awareness, creating alternatives, and sustaining action in advocacy for tap water.
Q: How did bottled water become popular?
A: In short, popularity rose because bottled water is a perfect fit for the social times we find ourselves in today. It is fast, convenient, relatively cheap, easy to carry, and in all of our busy lifestyles, it is easy to throw away and forget about after it has filled its basic need. In these ways and others, bottled water is a symbol for larger, and sometimes more pressing issues than we realize.
The major rise in popularity began in 1977 when the French bottled water brand Perrier launched a United States marketing campaign. Only two years later American sales of Perrier were up over 3,000 percent. The sparkling water brand grew as an alternative to alcoholic beverages and sugary sodas, but more importantly, Perrier’s popularity grew from pioneering mass marketing techniques that are now prevalent in the bottled water industry.
American companies soon saw that Perrier sold well in the United States. These companies also saw that at that time their own profits were nose-diving because consumers were becoming more health conscious (choosing to buy less soda) and they found that perfect product to fill that gap was bottled water.
The best advertisers in the world who work for corporations like Nestle, Pepsi, and
Coca-Cola with millions to spend on mass media campaigns, understand that advertising is a matter of appealing to our emotions. They understood that the most effective advertising sells a projection of sex, fear, wealth, or power in association with their product.
Today bottled water outsells milk, beer, and soda. There was one other factor that also helped vaunt the image of bottled water. That is that bottled water companies do not face the same standards of quality or transparency as municipal tap water systems.
While our public water systems are required to immediately report any potential violations of stringent testing regulations to the public, state, and federal governments, bottled water companies have lax standards and no requirement to report to the state government, federal government, or consumers, even when violations are found. With these lopsided rules it is easy for the bottled water companies to hide behind a veil of purity and mislead the public into thinking that bottled water is better than tap water.
Q: What is the environmental risk from consuming bottled water?
A: There are so many different ways that bottled water undermines our sustainability as a human species, in ways that we do not usually consider (which is the biggest reason why we have a problem). The ubiquity and total acceptance of bottled water in our culture has the greatest meaning for our larger efforts to fix some of biggest issues present in our society and environment today.
The biggest reason that bottled water has risen to the level of harming the environment is due to the fact that nine and a half times out of ten it can be avoided. Blind taste test across the country show that we cannot taste a difference between bottled and tap water (and a simple home filter can remedy poor tasting water). Chemical analyses and regulation requirements show that bottled water is not safer than tap water. Over a year bottled water can cost hundreds to thousands of dollars more than tap water. And tap water has a minuscule environmental footprint. (That is not to say that bottled water does not have a place. It is certainly necessary in some emergency situations, for example.)
The main reason that bottled water is harmful to the environment is due to the plastic bottle. Most plastics are derived from oil and natural gas, then refined and combined with many other chemical additives. Neither mankind nor mother nature can effectively recycle a product made from these materials.
Plastics do not biodegrade. The natural mechanisms mother nature uses, like fungi and bacteria, will not decompose plastic into its component chemical parts. In a way, plastics last forever. Plastics only physically or mechanically degrade, breaking into smaller and smaller pieces slowly over time. The main problems with the environmental safety of plastics are all exacerbated by the short life-span of single use plastics.
There is no good way to dispose of used plastic. Plastics do not recycle in the sense that we are led to believe they do. The best materials for recycling are glass, aluminum, and steel because they can all be melted down to a pure form to remove contaminants and recast into a new product. Plastic, on the other hand, melts at a much lower temperature which does not allow it to shed off contaminants.
In addition, there are thousands of combinations of chemicals that make up plastics, while consumers and disposal processes introduce new contaminants and the sorting and machinery requires that post-consumer plastics meet specific requirements to be recycled.
Even the basic makeup of plastics determines that plastic that does go through a recycling program, melted and combined with other plastics, is weaker than virgin plastic. This makes post-consumer plastics recycling difficult, labor intensive, and costly, usually outweighing the cost of using virgin plastic.
This is why only nine percent of the total plastic waste generated in 2012 was recovered for recycling (this is different than the commonly cited roughly 40% “recycled” rate, which is actually just the percentage collected, not recovered and recycled). We typically assume that, because of the neat triangle of chasing arrows, all recycling is a closed loop process. Yet by one estimate, using data from the plastics industry, there is about a 2.6% chance that any one plastic PET bottle is successfully recycled into another new PET bottle, let alone continuously recycled in a perfect loop.
This indication of a deeply flawed system is compounded because most of our “recycled” plastic gets shipped overseas (half is shipped to China, filling empty container ships that transported our countless consumer goods from across the Pacific) to countries with virtually no environmental or labor regulations, to be dumped and possibly made into cheap plastic lumber, carpeting, or other cheap down-cycled products which cannot be recycled again.
Plastic debris causes dire environmental problems in addition to being an eyesore. Once widely thought of as biologically inert, in reality plastics actively leach and absorb different chemicals. In the natural environment, and sometimes in the containers we use them for, plastics can leach chemicals like BPA or phthalates. When plastics weaken the additives that were added during the process to make them soft or rigid or flexible or colored start to leach out.
In addition, plastics also attract and absorb other chemicals present in the environment which have similar makeups. This means that plastic particles can harbor concentrations of persistent organic pollutants like PCBs or pesticides thousands of times more acute than present in the surrounding environment.
Because they do not biodegrade, plastics are made smaller by UV degradation, tidal action, and the natural processes of countless marine organisms, slowly becoming mircoplastics. These plastic bits now outweigh plankton in the ocean gyres, some featuring about 50 times more plastic than plankton, with researchers expecting the number to be over a hundred times some places.
In 2006, UNESCO estimated that 46,000 pieces of plastic float in every square mile of ocean, killing more than a million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals each year. This chemically active debris is especially potent because it can be found in various shapes and sizes and colors in the environment. Plastics are readily consumed, for example, bottle caps are a favorite of albatross, and microplastics are ingested by many species, from barnacles and corals to trout and even whales.
Organisms that ingest plastic risk filling their stomach with sharp nonnutritive trash which can occupy needed space in their stomachs and leach toxins later stored in their fat. These pollutants (coming from what the plastic collects) build up in the bodies of top level predators, including humans, through a process called biomagnification.
(For more insight into plastics’ impact on society and a lot of interesting background information I would encourage you to read Plastic Ocean by Captain Charles Moore. It explains a lot of this content in detail.)
We are not trained as consumers to consider a product at every stage of its life cycle. To examine the environmental footprint of bottled water we must consider the energy and resources used in oil extraction, and pellet production for bottle manufacturing and molding, then the water extraction, in addition to the filling, labeling, and sealing of bottles, and after all of that the collection and disposal for processing and landfilling, or recycling, or incineration. And between the major stages the cost of transportation adds to the total energy and resource consumption of bottled water.
Municipal water systems often utilize the power of gravity, as a result producing tap water uses up to 2,000 times less energy than producing bottled water. The plastic bottled water bottles consumed by Americans in 2006 alone took approximately 17 million barrels of oil; enough oil to fuel one million cars for an entire year.
The mass extraction of water from our local, and often times public, sources of fresh water has the ability to severely compromise community water systems. These and other industrial operations negatively affect localities.
Oil extraction operations, refineries, other plastic related industries, not to mention landfills, or incineration plants, have a harmful effect on the air, water, and general quality of life in communities around the world. In bottled water related industries this is not limited to the sometimes aggressive and dubious extraction of water. It is a side of the consumer industry we are often shielded from unless we happen to live near one of these operations.
Research also suggests that processing bottled water uses three times as much water as is sold inside the bottle itself. But the largest issues surrounding water has to do with social aspects of privatizing water.
Q: What is water privatization?
A: There are two main forms of water privatization. Both forms can have dire effects on local communities.
The first is mass extraction from a water source. Some states, provinces, and other areas around the world still lack sound groundwater regulations. This means that in many cases large corporations can pump out as much water as they want, for almost nothing. In other situations, mega-corporations like Nestle rush into small towns offering jobs, wealth, and general prosperity in exchange for the right to the community’s water. Before or after a deal is reached their large legal departments can afford to fight any opposition, often overwhelming local communities.
The other form of privatization is of entire municipal systems. A city looking to cut costs can privatize its water service to a privately owned company. In one case, after the city of Indianapolis contracted Veolia to handle their water department, customer complaints doubled, water quality sank, and multiple residents sued about overcharging, all of which led to an investigation by the State of Indiana and Veolia lost the contract.
Also of note is that in many countries public water systems and infrastructure are underdeveloped, and millions of people do not have access to clean water. The scarcity of fresh water on the planet will only continue to worsen, and a future where only the elite members of society can afford access to this basic human right is conceivable, because it is already happening today.
In areas of Mexico for example, public water is unreliable. The wealthy can afford to circumvent public systems and purchase bottled or privatized water. These private water dealings directly undermine the public system. As long as those with money can buy their way out of public services, the systems that provide clean water to everyone will suffer, and the inequality of society is heightened.
Q: Are there health concerns associated with drinking from plastic bottles?
A: Potential dangers involve plastics’ tendency to leach chemicals widely known to disrupt the endocrine system. Two of the more concerning chemicals, phthalates and BPA, have be found in the bodies of around 90% of Americans, and are classified as endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs).
Phthalates can leach from many plastics and other materials including PET used in bottled water. EDCs have been linked to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, breast and prostate cancer, thyroid dysfunction, developmental and reproductive problems, and more. BPA leaches from polycarbonate plastic used in blue five gallon reusable plastic containers, some plastic reusable water bottles, and aluminum can liners (many products that advertise as “BPA free” instead use the chemical BPS which some studies have shown to be worse than BPA).
Many studies support a “growing body of evidence” that suggests that these chemicals can leach out of many kinds of plastics (especially if the material is stressed, or exposed to sunlight or heat). And there is new evidence to confirm the suspicion that these chemicals can become more potent depending on their interaction with other potentially toxic chemicals. However, right now there is no true scientific consensus about the effect that exposure from bottled water would have on our hormones.
Q: Should I be afraid of the safety of public tap water?
A: About 47% of people choose bottled water because they are concerned about the safety of tap water, and the industry profits from this increasingly poor perception of municipal water. What people do not know is that about t 40-45% of bottled water is packaged tap water.
Any time you get a large number of people using the same public space or equipment, especially in places like schools, there is going to be concern and a risk for exposure to unhealthy surfaces.
Old fountains have gotten a bad rap for being seemingly constantly teeming with mucus and germs, but with modern drinking fountains that risk is virtually eliminated. In properly designed fountains the water never touches the spigot and comes out at an angle that prevents cross contamination.
New fountains and refilling stations feature downward flowing water for refilling bottles which also help with cleanliness. Letting the water run for a few seconds in any fountain will allow the water’s chlorination to remove harmful bacteria from surfaces that it may touch.
If someone still has worries about the safety of drinking tap water advise them to install a home water filter, or purchase a reusable bottle with a filter, as both are still less expensive, safer, and better for the environment than bottled water.