Thursday, March 27, 2014

bottled water: just say no!

There was a point in my past life when I bought a case of seltzer water a week. I developed the habit during graduate school when I felt perpetually ill from stress, lack of sleep and too much caffeine. Bubbly water seemed the only antidote to the buckets of bad coffee I drank to stay awake.

I traded the caffeine (and the stress) for more sleep when I graduated over a decade ago. But my habit of drinking seltzer water continued for several more years.  Then one day I looked at my recycle bin and noticed the way it overflowed with empty plastic. Why hadn't that bothered me before? Deciding that was way too much plastic for any one person to produce in a week, so I resolved to quit the habit. 

I still drink seltzer, but instead of buying twelve plastic bottles each week, I buy one or two glass bottles instead.

Just a week ago, if you'd asked me if I drank water out of plastic bottles, I'd have said "no way!" I wonder if my feelings of self-righteousness would have showed through. With the exception of "rare occasions" when a plastic bottle of water seemed unavoidable, I did not see myself as part of our growing bottled water problem. 

Then last weekend, we watched the documentary Tapped.  Have you seen it? It skewers the bottled water industry at every step of the product cycle: from extraction, where beverage companies haul water away from local communities who don't share in the profits; to packaging, where manufacture of the bottles relies on petroleum and harmful chemical elements (BPA when the film was made, antimony now); to testing, which is overseen by one FDA employee; to advertising, which misleads consumers into thinking the water is safer than tap water; to disposal which is turning our oceans into a "plastic soup."

After watching it, you'll vow to never touch another bottle of water again. That's what Steve and I said anyway. Of course, I was thinking in my I'm-already-all-over-this way about how I gave up bottled water years ago, but I didn't say that out loud.

The next day, I went to the coffee shop to work on my book. I don't do this every day - maybe once every one or two weeks.  After a long morning drinking decaf and writing, I decided I needed something to eat.

And I was thirsty.

I looked at my drink options: plastic bottles of water, plastic bottles of soda, and glass bottles of juice. 

I hesitated. I couldn't drink a bottle of water the day after watching Tapped! But I hate juice, refuse to drink soda (it's in plastic anyway) and couldn't stand the idea of another sweet drink after all the coffee I'd had (I'm not a black coffee kind of girl).

What should I do? I could hear the people behind me shuffling their feet in line. Their looks of "make up your mind!" drilled into the back of my head as I tottered on the edge of a panic-purchase.

My mind raced. I didn't have a reusable water bottle with me, and besides, would it be fair to bring my own drink after sitting in this restaurant using their electricity and wifi all day? I felt like I owed the proprietors my business.

So I did it. I pulled a crinkly bottle of water out of the ice, purchased it, and drank it. The day after watching Tapped.

Just this once.

Two nights later, I co-hosted a team-dinner for my son's soccer team. The other family provided drinks: two cases of water and a case of Gatorade. Egad! That was more water bottles than I wanted to be responsible for in a year!

An hour or two into the evening, I offhandedly mentioned how thirsty I was to Steve. The other mom heard me and kindly brought me a bottle of water. "Oh, thanks!" I said with a pained smile. I didn't know what to do. Could I sneak through the living room, return the bottle to the cooler, then rummage through her cupboards for a glass without her noticing? And would it matter if I did? Someone was going to drink that bottle of water, whether I did or not.

My friend stood in front of me, expecting me to guzzle down this drink with relief. Not wanting to be rude, I twisted off the plastic top with a crackle, and drank up.

Later, I noticed Steve doing it too.

Just this once.

Three days later, I volunteered to help out at my daughter's swim meet. I brought a reusable water bottle with me because all-day meets in hot indoor pools never fail to dehydrate me. In the afternoon, I sat at the scoring table entering meet results into a computer. Toward the end of the meet, things became frenzied as we worked to finish the events on time. I had drained my water bottle long before. Parched, I asked a swimmer if they could refill my bottle at a water fountain. Before I could stop her, another mom intercepted, explaining there was no need to do that because "We have a whole cooler of water bottles right here!" She was nice enough to bring me one.

And I drank it.

Just this once.

"Just this once" turned out to be three bottles of water within one week of watching Tapped!  That's hardly a record of abstinence.

If I were in high school trying not to get pregnant, I'd be in big trouble.

I still feel completely committed to the idea that I should never drink or purchase a bottle of water again. What I discovered, however, is how much our culture has acclimated to this idea of portable water. With bottles so omnipresent, other ways of accessing and drinking water (like large thermoses, pitchers and, imagine: CUPS!) have disappeared.

I'm sure I'm not the only person who watched Tapped and swore myself off of bottled water. And I bet I'm also not the only person to discover this can be a challenge.

As a country, we consume bottled water like it's...well...water. Check out the numbers. Between 2009 (when Tapped came out) and 2012, sale of bottled water increased by 1.2 BILLION gallons!




For the visual effect:
Data from the Beverage Marketing Corporation. Graph by Peter Gleick


The International Bottled Water Association (IBWA) cited a bright future for bottled water sales last spring, noting a 6.2% increase in bottled water consumption between 2012 and 2013.  According to IBWA, U.S. consumption rates work out to an average of 30.8 gallons of water per person per year!

But there's good news for conservationists too. San Francisco just banned the sale of bottled water on public property. How cool is that!?  As part of the ordinance, the city will also take steps to provide more "water filling stations" around town.  At least in San Francisco, public water won't go the way of the public phone.

While San Francisco marks the first major city to ban bottled water, smaller movements have led the charge. Concord, Massachusetts became the first city to implement a ban when it did so on January 2013. That same month, the University of Vermont became one of the first public universities to implement a ban on bottled water sales.  The movement continues to grow with other smaller communities and private universities getting on board. In the latest news, Western Washington University will remove bottled water from campus shelves in just a few days, on April 1st.

If you want to learn more about the movement to ban bottled water, check out the blog Ban the Bottle.

As for me, I'm regrouping. Over the past week, I discovered that really giving up bottled water is not a passive thing. I had no idea the "rare occasions" when I drank bottled water were so frequent. All of my nice friends and acquaintances caught me off guard with their kindness and generosity.

But now I'm ready for them: "Thanks so much, but I've given it up." It's as simple as "Just Say No!" If anyone asks why, I get a chance to spread the word.

So many world problems feel impossible and expensive to solve. This one is so easy.

In the U.S., public water is safe and free.

All we have to do is drink it!