I remember when bottled water went on sale in my home town sometime in the 1980s. I was just a kid but I clearly recall that the universal reaction among both children and adults was mockery. Who would be dumb enough to pay for water when it comes out of the tap for free? Fizzy water maybe, but otherwise it was just a waste of money.
Two and a bit decades on and it’s quite a different story. Bottled water is big business, worth over $60bn a year. Next time you go out, count how many people you see clutching branded bottles of water.
Yet one of the best things you can do for the environment and your wallet is to go back to tap water. You can install a water filter at your house if you like but really there’s no need – unless you’re living in the developing world and then you probably need more drastic measures, anyway. In countries like the United States, Canada, the U.K., Australia, New Zealand and most of Europe, tap water is proven to be very pure, sometimes purer than the spring waters sold in bottles. (Tap water comes out quite well in blind taste tests.)
It takes time and energy to pump the water out of the ground, bottle it, label it, market it, sell it and transport it. (Time and energy that is doubling up on what the government is already doing in supplying you with clean, safe, free tap water.) It’s bad enough when the water is from a Scottish spring and sold in London or from two states over in the United States, but when you’re selling Evian from France in Australia and Fiji water from the South Pacific in Denver, there’s something seriously wrong.
You might get some reuse out of it but ultimately plastic degrades and it’s not safe to continue reusing it more than once or twice.
Given that it’s a product that is frequently bought and consumed when you’re out and about when you may or may not be near recycling facilities, it’s understandable that so many bottles end up in the landfill. The best way to avoid this is to not buy it in the first place.
If you get thirsty, most cities still have drinking fountains – and they seem to be coming back in fashion. If you need a water bottle for the gym or to go hiking, you’re better off investing in a good quality water bottle that won’t leak – such as a metal Sigg bottle.
It’s a bigger challenge when you travel to countries without a safe water supply. It’s just so easy and tempting to buy bottled water. The problem is that countries without a safe water supply probably don’t have adequate garbage disposal facilities either, let alone recycling. I have visited various countries in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America, and plastic water bottles are quite often the main type of litter – worse by far than the much-maligned plastic shopping bag.
If you can use the hotel kettle to boil your water and then carry it in your own bottle that’s ideal. If not, at least buy the biggest bottles you can and take them back to your hotel room to refill your personal bottle. Within reason, you can even bring back some of your empties for recycling at home. Every drinking bottle you don’t add to the problem, it will make a difference. It’s harder for sure, but you don’t travel to these places for an easy life. I’ve seen plastic bottles littered in the dunes of the Sahara Desert in Tunisia and washed up on beaches in the Arctic. I know that I can’t clean up the mess single-handedly but the least I can do is not add to the problem.
Finally, as this New Statesman article says, if you’re going to drink from a bottle, make it wine. And if you cement one new habit in 2009 for the greener good, it’s got to be giving up the bottle.