In the United States, bottled water has become something of national obsession. According to the National Resources Defense Council, more than half of all Americans drink bottled water; about a third of the public consumes it regularly. And the number is growing. Annually about $4 billion worth of water is sold — three times what it was 10 years ago. Even our largely earth-conscious university, in a place with constant access to clean, safe tap water, has its own brand of bottled water.
In some places, such an obsession would make sense. In March, the United Nations announced that dirty water kills more people annually than violence, including wars. But in the United States, where tap water is potable, drinking bottled water has unintended consequences felt by other countries, the environment and our own wallet. Since the proliferation of bottled water in the late 1990s private development of water resources has soared. And as the market has expanded to almost $80 million, more for-profit companies have started doing business in third-world countries. While it seems like a good deal for everyone involved — business will increase, as will impoverished peoples’ access to potable water — the results are rarely as rosy as one would expect. As chronicled in Irena Salina’s 2007 documentary “Flow,” privatization has raised the price of affordable water to a level that many residents can no longer afford, forcing them to drink the unsafe alternative, often from stagnant ponds and unreliable, unfiltered wells. As a result, oft-violent protests have erupted in countries such as Bolivia and South Africa. And due to rising population and the swelling demand for clean water, the problem will undoubtedly reoccur in the coming years.
In America, we pay a big price for bottled water. Most estimates peg bottled water as at least 1,000 times as expensive per unit as tap water. In addition to the demands bottled water puts on your paycheck, it is troublingly unsustainable. Each year, 1.5 million barrels of oil are used to create the plastic water bottles used in the United States. If the calculation incorporates the energy used to extract water, the transportation needed to get the bottles from the spring or river to the store and refrigeration of the bottles, the number of barrels consumed skyrockets to 50 million. And with the consumption of oil comes the inevitable outpour of greenhouse gases.
These consequences might be worth it, however, if bottled water were safer than the alternative. But in fact, 25 to 40 percent of bottled water (the figure varies depending on the source) is just tap water. Furthermore, tap water is subject to more stringent regulations than bottled water. The Federal Drug Administration, which oversees bottled water, lacks the regulatory power of the Environmental Protection Agency, whose jurisdiction extends to tap water. While the EPA requires tap water to be tested by certified laboratories and violations of safe contaminant levels to be reported, the FDA lacks the ability to require testing or violation reporting, and it is unable to require bottled water companies to reveal the source and treatment of the water they sell.
In New Haven, the tap water meets every state and federal regulation. And it can be just as convenient as bottled water — for a one-time payment between $5 and $15 reusable stainless steel and aluminum bottles let you carry your water where you please. If you are worried about contamination from pipes, consider buying a filtering pitcher, which not only ensures additional cleanliness, but also serves as a convenient way to cool water when refrigerated.
Yale, through its efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and implement clean energy technology, has an enviable record of sustainability. Unfortunately, the University lags behind several peer institutions in addressing the environmental consequences of bottled water. Though the Yale bottled water company is local, this fact by no means transforms bottling water into a sustainable practice. In the past year, over 20 colleges, including Brown, have banned the sale of bottled water on campus. Until Yale follows suit, we should each take a personal stand against bottled water — a stand that starts at the tap.
Sam Bendinelli is a freshman in Berkeley College a member of Think Outside the Bottle.