Straight Talk: What’s the big deal with bottled water?

There was a time not so very long ago when everyone seemed to be carrying around a plastic, disposable water bottle, including me. Now, while there are still millions of people hooked on the plastic water, we are seeing everywhere a new somber warning:  water bottles are bad.

So what’s the big deal with plastic water bottles?

If you don’t want to read this long post, here’s the summary:

For numerous reasons, it is personally unhealthy and harmful to the environment to drink your water from disposable plastic water bottles. It’s great to drink a lot of clean water (and yes, in America and in most countries the tap water is as good as anything you buy in a bottle), so instead of the disposable bottle, make a one-time purchase of a bottle like this, which will keep you hydrated without all the dangers. 

That said, let’s dig into the details. Drinking water from plastic water bottles gained enormous popularity for two reasons. First, the marketers of bottled water convinced the public that it was clearer, cleaner, tastier, and healthier than tap water. Second, waters bottles are portable and convenient. You can take a cooler full of bottled water or take just one bottle on a short journey; you have water at your fingertips, and you can just chuck the bottle when you’re done (or keep it and reuse it if you’re using the bottles for convenience, not water quality).

As a family, we’ve gone through three phases. During the first phase we were buying tons of bottled water for use away from the house. We did this for pure convenience. As budgets tightened we entered a second phase, when we had dozens of plastic bottles around the house, which we filled with tap water for use at home and when we left the house; we’d wash the bottles and reuse them until they were too beat up to be practical.

Finally, we have moved to the use of permanent water bottles and we almost never use disposable plastic bottles. We moved to this phase because of a vague understanding that there were problems with the plastic bottles, which may affect our health and may be environmentally irresponsible. Now, we’ve learned more. 

Regardless of what phase you may be in, here what we know about disposable plastic water bottles.

1.   Personal health

Water is often bottled in #1 PET or PETE bottles (polyethylene terephthalate), which may or may not leach DEHA, a known carcinogen, into the water. Experts agree that you should not re-use #1 plastic bottles. Plastics numbered 3, 6 and 7 are worse; they contain Bisphenol A (BPA), which is suspected of causing neurological and behavioral problems in fetuses and children. BPA mimics the female hormone estrogen, which may have detrimental effects, including cancer of the brain, breast and prostate, the female reproductive system and the immune system in adults.

It’s a numbers game; a dangerous game. Here’s a medical explanation:

Plastic water bottles are very convenient for carting water around when we are on the go, as they don’t break if we drop them. However, it is worth paying attention to the type of plastic your water bottle is made of, to ensure that the chemicals in the plastic do not leach into the water. If you taste plastic, you are drinking it, so get yourself another bottle.

To be certain that you are choosing a bottle that does not leach, check the recycling symbol on your bottle. If it is a #2 HDPE (high density polyethylene), or a #4 LDPE (low density polyethylene), or a #5 PP (polypropylene), your bottle is fine. The type of plastic bottle in which water is usually sold is usually a #1, and is only recommended for one time use. Do not refill it. Better to use a reusable water bottle, and fill it with your own filtered water from home and keep these single-use bottles out of the landfill.

Unfortunately, those fabulous colourful hard plastic lexan bottles made with polycarbonate plastics and identified by the #7 recycling symbol, may leach BPA. Bisphenol A is a xenoestrogen, a known endocrine disruptor, meaning it disturbs the hormonal messaging in our bodies. Synthetic xenoestrogens are linked to breast cancer and uterine cancer in women, decreased testosterone levels in men, and are particularly devastating to babies and young children

Here’s more number crunching.

2. It’s a Waste

Bottled water may seem purer or cleaner than tap water, but it is not. The FDA actually has stricter rules for tap water than it does for bottled water. Tap water is tested more frequently. And since 40% of bottled water, including ones labeled “spring water,” comes from municipal tap water, it’s simply a waste of money and resources to purchase bottled water.

It does take a lot of resources to produce plastic bottles.  One group reports that 1.5 million barrels of oil per year, which is enough to fuel 100,000 cars a year, are required to satisfy Americans’ demand for bottled water. That’s because PET, or polyethylene terephthalate, the plastic used in most water bottles, is derived from crude oil. And a tremendous amount of energy is wasted transporting bottled water, when we have access to clean water from our kitchen faucets.

(If, however, you don’t like the taste of your tap water or are unsure of its quality, you can buy a filter pitcher or install an inexpensive faucet filter to remove trace chemicals and bacteria. If you will be away from home, fill a reusable bottle from your tap and refill it along the way; travel bottles with built-in filters are also available.)

***If you just enjoy spending money on water, do it in a redemptive way: how about helping to provide clean water for those who really don’t have it. The cost of just one case of bottled water could supply a person in Africa with clean, safe drinking water for the next 5 years! That’s a great cause that’s done well by groups such as Living Water International, The Water Project, and Blood:Water Mission.

3.   Environmental impact:

Another factor to consider is the inability of plastic to biodegrade. Plastic waste often ends up in landfills and waterways, where it has formed a floating patch of garbage in the Pacific Ocean roughly the size of Texas!  It has devastating effects on sea life.

Four of every five bottles end up not in the ocean, but in landfills, according to the Container Recycling Institute, a Washington group that promotes recycling. The Institute reports that 86 percent of plastic water bottles used in the United States become garbage or litter.

Why is the presence of so many bottles in landfills a problem? Three big reasons:

  • Incinerating used bottles produces toxic byproducts such as chlorine gas and ash containing heavy metals.
  • Water bottles buried in landfills can take up to 1,000 years to biodegrade.
  • The bottles leak toxic additives, such as nasty phthalates, into the groundwater.

It All Comes Down to This

I like this summary:

The situation is simple. Drinks from non-plastic vessels taste better. Plastic is a non-renewable resource, its manufacture is energy- and resource-intensive, and in many cases highly toxic. It does not biodegrade. Polyvinyl-chloride manufacturing releases dioxins, as does the incineration of said PVC. Plastic used in food applications can get worn and torn and eventually harbor terrorist bacteria. Plastics recycling is also known as “downcycling,” because each reiteration of your original bottle is of lower quality than the next, until at last the landfill beckons.

Glass is a better choice. I know this may give the lifecycle analysis people a conniption. I do not care. Let’s face it: In most situations, you do not even need a plastic water container. If you’re at a desk, or in the kitchen, or even at spinning class, glass or ceramic vessels are fine. There is no good reason to use plastic water bottles in everyday life unless you are a professional cyclist or mountain climber.

So instead of fretting about plastic resins and trying to keep all the numbers straight, pass right over the entire issue by using a different material. Set aside one plastic container for the infrequent times when nothing but a lightweight unbreakable material will do. And make that material a #2, #4, or #5 plastic. The numbers are on the bottom, people.

 Choose wise alternatives.

Many companies now offer re-useable and recyclable stainless steel bottles that can easily replace the plastic water bottle habit. I now have an Eco-Canteen and have been very happy with it. Other friendly bottles include those by KleanKanteen and Sigg. My wife has one of these and loves it.

We don’t miss the disposable water bottles and we feel great about our choice to abandon them. You will, too.

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About Jim Jewell

I am a writer and consultant on faith and public life, active for many years in management and communications in the evangelical community. I now work as the director of the nonprofit practice at The Valcort Group (www.valcort.com). Everything on this blog, however, is my personal opinion and is not read or approved before it is posted. Opinions, conclusions and other information expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of Valcort.
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