The Bottled Water Dilemma

I’ve had several people send me this story about the perils of bottled water, and I do want to comment on it. The problem I’m having is determining just exactly what I should say.

First tho’, a bit from the article:

But bottled water isn’t healthier, or safer, than tap water. Indeed, while the United States is the single biggest consumer in the world’s $50 billion bottled-water market, it is the only one of the top four–the others are Brazil, China, and Mexico–that has universally reliable tap water. Tap water in this country, with rare exceptions, is impressively safe. It is monitored constantly, and the test results made public. Mineral water has a long association with medicinal benefits–and it can provide minerals that people need–but there are no scientific studies establishing that routinely consuming mineral water improves your health. The FDA, in fact, forbids mineral waters in the United States from making any health claims.

And for this healthy convenience, we’re paying what amounts to an unbelievable premium. You can buy a half- liter Evian for $1.35–17 ounces of water imported from France for pocket change. That water seems cheap, but only because we aren’t paying attention.

In San Francisco, the municipal water comes from inside Yosemite National Park. It’s so good the EPA doesn’t require San Francisco to filter it. If you bought and drank a bottle of Evian, you could refill that bottle once a day for 10 years, 5 months, and 21 days with San Francisco tap water before that water would cost $1.35. Put another way, if the water we use at home cost what even cheap bottled water costs, our monthly water bills would run $9,000.

Before I go too much further, I have to come clean. I used to consume a fair amount of bottled water. I’ve cut back a fair amount, especially since the purchase of our Brita filter (Actually, We’ve two of them in the house). Where I am especially weak is at the restaurants when Tara and I eat out, as I’m a fan of sparkling water. When I order this, typically the Pelligrino is offered up like bread sticks. I’ve since moved on to Club Soda, but I admit that I do regress from time to time.

I don’t necessarily feel any guilt about that, and I’m not sure that I should. Clearly bottled water is the most luxurious of luxuries, and one of which we should no longer partake. And yet, the arguments against bottled water seem a bit overly calculated.

For instance, the environmental argument essentially states that all of these bottles, glass and plastic, excessively add to our landfills. While this is undoubtedly true, an argument can be made for any of the mass marketed products that we consume. Are the tons of empty water bottles any more obscene than the empty bottles of soda or juice that little the same garbage dumps?

I realize that this is an oversimplification of the larger issue. Water is a readily available socialized commodity and one that is remarkably cheap. It seems obscene to charge markups of thousands of a percent on a necessary product and convert it into a luxury item. While this argument runs closer to my problems with bottled water, I could still make the same argument about any number of products found on the shelf. Do we need pasta that’s sold for 20 dollars per pound or chocolate being sold with a markup of 4,444%? When it comes to overpriced luxury items, the biggest sinner is not always the producer, but instead the buyer whose ignorance allows the producer to get away with it.

And yes, in the world of purchasing luxury items, I do hold the ‘victim’ accountable, myself included. As the cliché goes – Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me again, shame on me.

I guess the point of my prattle is this – I think it’s wonderful that San Francisco and Salt Lake City are taking steps to reduce the demand for bottled water. But the group of people responsible for the popularity of bottled water are the consumers who allow themselves to be sold water at incredible markups.