Water must not turn into the new oil

Patrick Miner

According to New York’s Beverage Marketing Corporation, a leading research and consulting firm in the global beverage industry, 8.7 billion gallons of bottled water were sold in the U.S. in 2008. That’s more than juice, sports drinks, energy drinks, tea and coffee combined.

At this rate of consumption, Lawrence’s 1,466 students could fill an entire floor of Main Hall with about 10 inches of bottled water every year. If we then disposed of the 271,000 bottles in which the water would be packaged, we would create a floating mass of plastic 21 inches high across the whole surface of our new Main Hall lake. Lastly, about 10,600 gallons of oil would be required to produce the bottles and to ship them to us, adding 2.5 inches of oil to the lake.

Since we don’t have to trudge through three feet of trash in Main Hall every year – or witness the disposal process of any of our trash for that matter – we often forget the many impacts of our consumption habits. And, of course, the vast majority of trash created has nothing to do with bottled water.

Last Saturday, at Greenfire’s Earth Day celebration, a bottled water versus tap water taste test was put together by the student organization. Of the 43 participants, 27 identified the two water types correctly, and 16 identified them incorrectly. Only 11 people preferred the taste of the bottled water when asked before they knew the identities of the samples. While this was by no means an exhaustive study, it served as an effective consciousness-raiser for its participants.

The Natural Resources Defense Council recently found that about a quarter of all bottled water sold in the U.S. is, in fact, purified municipal water (i.e. tap water). Aquafina, Pepsi’s bottled water brand, and Dasani, Coke’s brand, are the two leading bottled water lines in the country, and both are packaged tap water.

Shortly after Coca-Cola launched Dasani in the U.K. in 2004, they recalled 500,000 bottles and pulled the brand from the country. Coca-Cola had been treating, then bottling tap water from southeast London and marketing it as “pure,” when in fact their treatment process created bromate within the water, a possible carcinogen.

Back in the U.S., regulation of bottled water is a huge problem. While the EPA monitors tap water very closely, they are not permitted to regulate the bottled water industry, and the FDA rarely inspects brands adequately. Some plants go 10 years without inspection. Meanwhile, tap water costs less than one cent per gallon and bottled water costs $8 or more per gallon. Consumers are not paying for quality, they are paying for packaging (oil), advertisements and CEO bonuses.

Discarded plastic accounts for approximately 90 percent of trash in the Pacific Ocean. Over 80 percent of used water bottles are thrown away, even though they are recyclable. Much of the plastic that is recycled is shipped oversees to plants staffed by underpaid workers for processing, using more fossil fuels and contributing to the economic plight of many nations.

U.S. and European corporations are buying up water in developing countries and selling it back to people who live on less than $2.50 per day — over half of the world population lives on this sum. Corporations like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Nestle are turning water into the new oil.

There is, of course, an essential difference: Oil is not required for human survival; it is replaceable by new methods and technologies. But, as Indian ecofeminist Vandana Shiva puts it, “When it comes to water and peoples’ right to water, we have one common humanity and one common survival. There is no substitute for clean fresh water and local environments of rivers, streams and ground water. There is no substitute; there is no alternative. And that’s why water must be protected everywhere.”

According to the U.N., it would require an additional $30 billion per year to provide safe drinking water for everyone on the planet. Yet worldwide, we waste $100 billion on bottled water annually. How many more years will we spend drowning corporate coffers with profit before we take back the world’s water?