Bottled Water Boycott Highlights Waste, Resource Depletion

by Shreema Mehta

Apr. 26 – Environmentalists are calling for a boycott of bottled water in an effort to reduce the use of fossil fuels, protect the environment and protect local drinking supplies.

Campaign leader Food and Water Watch says bottled water dangerously "undermines confidence" in public tap-water supplies. "The more those who can afford bottled water depend on bottled water, the harder it is for communities to muster political and financial support for urgent upgrades to public water systems that most people depend on to provide safe, affordable water," the group said on its website.

Activists are urging members of the public to sign a pledge to end daily bottled-water consumption and to refill bottles with tap water rather than buy new ones.

The pledge is part of several environmental groups' efforts to halt the "commodification" of the nation's water supply through an increase in bottled-water production and private management of local systems.

"We need to maintain [the public water] system by adequately funding repairs and improvements to our national water infrastructure so that every citizen has access to clean and affordable tap water," stated Public Citizen on its own Water for All campaign site. "Bottled water is not the answer."

Over the past few years, sales of bottled water have risen sharply in the United States, to over 8 billion gallons in 2006, and with it the number of plastic thrown in landfills. According to the Container Recycling Institute, a nonprofit that promotes recycling, most bottled water is sold in "single serve" sizes which are "prone to being littered." The Institute's report also noted that 96 percent of bottled water is sold in polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic bottles, and that less than 15 percent of those bottles get recycled.

The activists calling for the bottled-water boycott also point out that the water sold in gas stations and grocery stores throughout the country is not necessarily safer than cheaper tap water. Tap water is regulated by the US Environmental Protection Agency, while bottled water is regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration. The FDA gives inspecting water-bottling plants a low priority because of water's stable safety record.

But a widely cited Natural Resources Defense Council study tested 103 bottled-water brands, finding that 26 of them at had at least one sample that contained enough contaminants to violate California state regulations, which are among the strictest. The group did not test tap water to see how it compared.

Additionally, as a federal agency, the FDA does not regulate water that is bottled and sold within one state, leaving it up to state agencies. While most state agencies surveyed by the NRDC said their regulations were equal to or stricter than the FDA's, thirteen states said they had no staff or resources allocated specifically to enforce regulations on bottled water, while an additional 26 states had "less than one" full-time staff member enforcing bottled-water programs.

Advocates say that while bottled water is generally safe, the public wastes money and plastic at the detriment of tap water accessible to everyone. In addition to calling for more money to go into protecting and improving local water supplies, the anti-bottled-water campaigners also point out that the popularity of bottled water can have long-term dangers on local communities where the water comes from.

Nestle's plan to build a water-bottling plant at Mt. Shasta in McCloud, California, for instance, has drawn criticism for its potential to deplete aquifers and reduce river flow.

Mark Franco, headman of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, which lives near the proposed plant, said Nestle should not "sell what is a public trust, and take it out from people who need it."