Bottled Water - Lifting the Lid

Lloyd's recent post on the waste from bottled water had treehuggers wondering about the relative merits of water delivery:- Lexan, glass, HDPE, PLA, home filtering and suchlike? Thought I'd take a modest stab at trying to answer some of these ponderings. A caveat — I'll ramble off topic a bit! Firstly let's be clear about this, in most modern communities tap water is often more 'pure' than bottled water. Indeed, in the USA tap water is regulated by the EPA, whereas the FDA look over the shoulder of bottled water suppliers, using less stringent criteria. As eMagazine points out "40 percent of bottled water began life as, well, tap water." In the same comprehensive article, eMag note that the NRDC had 1,000 bottles of water tested, and discovered that a "third of the tested brands were found to contain contaminants such as arsenic and carcinogenic compounds in at least some samples at levels exceeding state or industry standards." And in one study at Syracuse University, "... they found that one-fourth of bottled water had 10 times the bacterial count of tap water." And who is selling us this bottled water in the first place? The same folk who enthuse about the joys of Aspartame maybe? In Australia the feds are looking to ban Coca Cola from any more acquistions, so they don't have a greater monopoly than their existing 30% market share. (I once saw a documentary where a Coca Cola executive told a jubilant sales conference their goal was to have human consumption of carbonated beverages exceed that of water — now it seems they want to own the water market too.)

It is, after all, according to WWF "... the fastest growing beverage industry in the world, worth up to $22 billion a year." Yet during the 2004 UK launch of Coke's Dasani bottled water furor erupted, when it was determined that the company was processing tap water and adding minerals. And worse followed when "a bad batch of minerals had contaminated the water production with a potentially carcinogenic bromate. ... Immediately they withdrew all 500,000 bottles of Dasani in circulation."

Tasting test after test has shown that in blind taste trials tap water is rated as good, if not better, than many bottled waters.

So, let's assume that the stuff from the tap is indeed safe, and tastes generally OK, what is the best way to carry life giving water around? Glass, as some readers suggested, is certainly a very sound option, so long as weight and potential for breakage are not issues. Alas, this rules it out for many applications.

Lexan (a brand of polycarbonate or PC - coded with a Number 7) is like a highly durable, crystalline plastic, in the realm of perspex. It is used for the popular Nalgene drink bottles and baby milk bottles. These came under fire for leaching a chemical that mimics the hormone estrogen, known as Bisphenol-A (BPA). Before this issue flared up, polycarbonate was seen as the answer to many environmental dilemmas. It has long been proposed as the green replacement for containers like the old glass milk bottle. Although not commonly recycled, it can be autoclaved (at high temps) and washed many times, so can be reused for ages. Plus is almost unbreakable and heaps lighter to transport than glass. And multiple reuse beats recycling of paperboard cartons and high density polyethylene (HDPE) any day. If one reads past the headlines, it would seem that sink washing with a mild detergent is much safer, than using dishwashing machines, or the harsh alkaline lab detergents that first brought the controversity to light. Nalgene themselves list a bunch of tests showing minimal or no leaching from polycarbonate. And the British Food Standards Association has this to say: "Research is still going on to establish whether or not bisphenol-A has this effect ['endocrine disrupters'] in humans."

(Long transgression: There maybe fire where there is smoke, but oftentimes there's just smoke. For example, one would be hard pressed to find any aluminium cookware in the US, as a result of a huge scare that suggested its use led to Alzheimers Disease. Yet as the British Alzheimers Society themselves say, " ... a possible link with aluminium seems increasingly unlikely," with no causal relationship yet proven. Yes, we should be wary of the unwelcome side effects that modern life brings with it, but hysteria helps no-one. We need to be careful about throwing the baby out with the bath water.

Speaking of babies, the soaring rise in allergies and in asthma has been linked to the seemingly sterile, cosseted world in which our kids now play. All surfaces are these days sprayed with antibacterial treatments, (which only create super bugs, in the long term) in the mistaken belief that makes a safer environment for little John and Jane. When what they really need is to get out in the gardens, parks, woods, and eat dirt, worms and leaves - like their grandparents did. In small doses such exposure actually develops antibodies, and naturally increases resistance to nasties, that so many now look to chemicals to solve. Farm kids, for example, are less likely to develop such ailments than are city raised children.

So, while some exposure to germs, bacteria, etc is beneficial, cumulative exposure may have the reverse effect. Just as once teflon non-stick frypans and their ilk were the perceived panacea to the aluminium cookware conundrum, they have now themselves succumbed to health concerns.)

Back on topic, what about HDPE and Polypropylene (PP), or for that matter PET? Can they safely be reused for carrying about our water? Of course we can't use PET, because they come with labels on the bottles saying "Do Not Reuse". Why? Reason 1. The company marketing the single use drink bottle want you to buy another, and another, and ... Reason 2. A scientific test supposedly showed toxins leached from PET when reused. Oh yeh? Says who? This well researched post at debunks that urban myth. Reason 3. Bacteria might take up residence if the bottle is not washed properly. Doh! And does this not also apply to all other , regardless of material? (America so loves a new PET bottle, it throws 2.5 million of them away. Every hour! Hence the issue Lloyd mentioned.)

The much recommended HDPE? Over the years I've gone through about 4 or 5 of the Nalgene HDPE trail bottles. With prolonged use they became brittle and disintegrated. Now, surely minute plastic particles must've been flecking off and mixing with my water before the moment of detonation. That can't have been good for me. But given that it's formed the basis for that classic reusable line of food grade containers for over 50 years - Tupperware - then we might all be in trouble. But I doubt it. And Polypro, the soft flexible plastic often used for bicycle style bottles, with the squirt tops? Well, can't say I've ever heard any bad news about this one, from a toxin point of view.

And PLA? Polylactic Acid, such as found in biodegradable corn starch plastics, is only new to the game and long term health effects are not identified at this point. Though it is worth mentioning that most PLA is likely to be derived from genetically modified crops, as we've suggested elsewhere. Although a biodegradable material, it is industrially processed, in a near identical manner, to any other plastic.

Aluminium then? Something like Sigg from Switzerland perhaps. These were the original lightweight outdoor water bottle long before Nalgene. The straight aluminium oxidised on the inside and developed intriguing internal 'growths' and the narrow necks made them very awkward to clean (this is still the case, to the degree that Sigg now offer a special brush and cleaning tablets.). Later they added a baked-on, taste-inert, food-compatible, stove enamel to the inside to solve this prob. This makes it arguable the only aluminium bottle also able to handle fruit acids and isotonic drinks.

So in conclusion (and a big Three Cheers to anyone who has bravely stayed the course, all the way down here!) it would appear that most any well maintained, and gently but thoroughly cleaned bottle is quite OK for your water. You simply don't need to buy disposable, single use, bottled water on any health grounds, either related to the water itself, or the vessel which contains it. From an environmental (and human health) aspect, tap water in a reusable bottle is the go for h2O.

(Unless however, you are travelling through communities with poorly regulated sanitation and municipal water. Although in such circumstances boiling water and cleaning your own bottles - with boiled water - might indeed be healthier than assuming the local bottled water is any cleaner than what comes from the taps.)

[Disclaimer: In a previous life I once handled the design and copywriting for marketing campaigns of both Nalgene and Sigg in Australia. Plus I should probably add that none of the above constitutes medical advice, and is but one individual's 'take', based on personal research.]

NB; Lead photo found here.