How the world wastes $100 Billion per year

Bottled water - pouring resources down the drain

The worldwide consumption of bottled water reached 154 billion liters in 2004, up 57 percent from the 98 billion liters used five years earlier.

Even in areas where tap water is safe to drink, such as Western Europe (well, in most parts of Western Europe it is safe) and the USA and Canada, demand for bottled water is increasing year by year. This demand, aside from producing unnecessary garbage and consuming vast quantities of energy, also puts a strain on the water resources. We must not forget that also some bottled water is nothing but repackaged tap water that may (or may not) have been going trough a filtering and in some cases a reverse osmosis process. Although in the industrial world bottled water is often no healthier than tap water, it can cost up to 10,000 times more. At as much as $2.50 per liter, bottled water costs much more than does gasoline in the USA and even more than gasoline, aka petrol does in Britain. We must be mad, literally mad to do this.

The United States is the world’s leading consumer of bottled water, with Americans drinking 26 billion liters in 2004, or approximately one 8-ounce glass per person every day. Mexico has the second highest consumption, at 18 billion liters. China and Brazil follow, at close to 12 billion liters each. Ranking fifth and sixth in consumption are Italy and Germany, using just over 10 billion liters of bottled water each. While, maybe, one can understand Mexicans drinking bottled water for I, certainly, would not want to trust the tap water in say Mexico or Brazil, unless I would filter it first, to have countries of the what was once called First World do this, and especially countries such as the USA, the UK (with one of the finest tap waters in the world) and Germany is absolute and utter madness.

Some of the largest increases in bottled water consumption have occurred in developing countries. Of the top 15 per capita consumers of bottled water, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates, and Mexico have the fastest growth rates, with consumption per person increasing by 44–50 percent between 1999 and 2004. While the rates per capita in India and China are not as high, total consumption in these populous countries has risen very fast indeed – tripling in India and more than doubling in China in that five-year period. And there is great potential for further growth. If everyone in China drank 100 8-ounce glasses of bottled water a year (slightly more than one fourth the amount consumed by the average American in 2004), China would go through some 31 billion liters of bottled water, quickly becoming the world’s leading consumer.

In contrast to tap water, which is distributed through an energy-efficient infrastructure, transporting bottled water long distances involves burning massive quantities of fossil fuels. Nearly a quarter of all bottled water crosses national borders to reach consumers, transported by boat, train, and truck. In 2004, for example, Nord Water of Finland bottled and shipped 1.4 million bottles of Finnish tap water 4,300 kilometers (2,700 miles) from its bottling plant in Helsinki to Saudi Arabia. Please note: this is tap water that is being shipped in bottles to the Arabian Peninsular. Who ever has heard of such stupidity.

Saudi Arabia can afford to import the water it needs, but bottled water is not just sold to water-scarce countries. While some 94 percent of the bottled water sold in the United States is produced domestically, Americans also import water shipped some 9,000 kilometers from Fiji and other faraway places to satisfy the demand for chic and exotic bottled water.

Fossil fuels are also used in the packaging of water. The most commonly used plastic for making water bottles is polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which is derived from crude oil. Making bottles to meet Americans’ demand for bottled water requires more than 17 million barrels of oil annually, enough to fuel more than 1 million U.S. cars for a year. Around the world some 2.7 million tons of plastic are used to bottle water each year.

After the water has been consumed, the plastic bottle must be disposed of. According to the Container Recycling Institute, 86 percent of plastic water bottles used in the United States become garbage or litter. Incinerating used bottles produces toxic byproducts such as chlorine gas and ash containing heavy metals. Buried water bottles can take up to 1,000 years to “biodegrade” which, in this case, and in the case of all oil-based plastics, is really an incorrect term as those bottles do not biodegrade but just slowly break down in soil while leaching harmful chemicals into the soil and the groundwater. Almost 40 percent of the PET bottles that were deposited for recycling in the United States in 2004 were actually exported, sometimes to as far away as China- adding to the resources used by this product.

In addition to the strains bottled water puts on our ecosystem through its production and transport, the rapid growth in this industry means that water extraction is concentrated in communities where bottling plants are located. For example, water shortages near beverage bottling plants have been reported in Texas and in the Great Lakes region of North America, and not to mention the plants of Coca cola as far afield as India. Farmers, fishermen, and others who depend on water for their livelihoods, suffer from the concentrated water extraction when water tables drop quickly. Plant life too suffers as does aquatic life. Where the water tables drop below a certain depth trees can no longer reach the moisture and mature trees that no longer have the ability to extend their roots deeper and deeper to follow the water table that is dropping become distressed and in the end die.

Studies show that consumers associate bottled water with healthy living. But bottled water is not guaranteed to be any healthier than tap water. In fact, roughly 40 percent of bottled water begins as tap water; and many non-tap bottled water, e.g. “spring” water contains much higher concentrations of harmful substances than tap water would ever allowed to have. The stringent rules that apply for tap water as to hygiene and such do not apply to “spring” water in bottles. Oops!

As I have just indicated it is a fact that, in a number of places, including Europe and the United States, there are more regulations governing the quality of tap water than bottled water. Water quality standards in the USA, set by the Environmental Protection Agency for tap water, for instance, are more stringent than the standards set by Food and Drug Administration for bottled water, and the same applies for the UK and other European countries, for instance. So, which one is better – bottled or tap? No contest, I think.

There is no question that clean, affordable drinking water is essential to the health of our global community. But bottled water is not the answer in the developed world, nor does it solve problems for the 1.1 billion people who lack a secure water supply. Improving and expanding existing water treatment and sanitation systems is more likely to provide safe and sustainable sources of water over the long term. In villages, rainwater harvesting and digging new wells can create more affordable sources of water. And when we talk “affordable” drinking water for the third world, for instance, I doubt that bottled water would come anywhere near the “affordable” label.

Considering how much money we waste worldwide on bottled water, the greatest hoax ever pulled off, the “inventors” of the “bottled water”, much of which, as far as I can ascertain, is nothing but repackaged tap water, must be laughing all the way to the bank and must really think that the entire world has gone mad. In fact, it would indeed seem that many people have done just that, gone mad. Who in their right mind would spend such an amount of money annually on water in plastic bottles. When bottled water is more expensive than other drinks, as it is in many places, then we do have a problem.

The world spends $100 billion on bottled water every year. Strangely enough, this water does not get to the millions of sick and dying people who do not have access to clean drinking water.

To bring potable water to the entire world would cost around $30 billion...less than half of the amount that people who have access to clean drinking water spend on bottles of the stuff every year.

I am honestly very angry about this, and I haven't even gotten going as to the environmental problems proper as yet. In fact, I'm not going to...I'm just going to leave it there...

by Michael Smith (Veshengro) © April 2008