Ask Pablo: Is Bottled Water Really So Bad?

Bottled Water Photo

Over the past few years journalists and commentators have denounced bottled water as an environmental evil. I can count myself as one of those after my article about the greenhouse gas emissions from producing and transporting one bottle of Fiji water all the way from the South Pacific to the US (do a Google search for "Fiji water" and my article is still one of the top links to appear). A short time later Fast Company magazine published "Message in a Bottle," further exposing the bottled water industry and Fiji specifically. Perhaps in response to the bad publicity, Fiji Water unveiled a marketing campaign to publicly show their green side. The website explains their efforts to quantify their greenhouse emissions, reduce those emissions through energy efficiency and renewable energy, and to offset the remaining emissions through the reforestation of rain forest on the island of Fiji. Despite these noble efforts the Fiji Water company has continued to receive criticism and even accusations of "Greenwashing."

Is all of the negative attention on bottled water justified?

Surely there are bigger culprits out there. The problem for bottled water is that it is so ubiquitous and generally an unnecessary luxury. With most of the Western world having access to clean municipal water supplies, and even additional filtration, there is little reason to grab a pre-packaged dose of hydration, except for the sake of convenience, portability, or emergency preparedness. But successful marketing campaigns have created an image of purity, wealth, and health around bottled water and it is this situation that has triggered the bottled water backlash.

While everyone is bashing bottled water the rest of the bottled beverage industry has remained relatively untouched. This is despite the fact that all other bottled beverages contain a higher level of embodied environmental impact because they have ingredients in addition to water and their packaging is oftentimes heavier, translating into higher shipping emissions. Most of these ingredients are agricultural products: corn sweeteners for sodas, grapes for wine, grains for beer, etc. and their supply chain involves petrochemical fertilizers, diesel trucks, and processing factories. So all of a sudden bottled water doesn't seem quite as bad, or at least this is how the bottled water industry sees it. Their argument is often that they are shifting market share away from high-calorie soft drinks to a much healthier alternative. Unfortunately this still ignores the fact that consumers can get healthy (and much cheaper) water from their tap as well as portability and convenience from Bisphenol-A free, reusable, and durable, stainless steel containers.

But what if I like to drink soft drinks or carbonated water?

Fear not. There is a way to avoid becoming a social outcast among your tree-hugging friends if you enjoy a bubbly drink but don't want to be responsible for the greenhouse gas emissions from trucking flavored water around the country. SodaStream has a line of carbonators that will turn your tap water into bubbly goodness and, with the addition of a concentrate, will even produce your favorite soda. The refillable CO2 cartridges can be exchanged for full ones at a cost of around $0.30 per liter.

No environmental campaign will change the fact that Fiji Water is still brought from Fiji, Evian from France, Gerolsteiner from Germany, and Pellegrino from Italy but environmental concerns may also not sway some consumers to change their habits. This is why it is good that the bottled water industry has taken on their environmental impact aggressively in recent months. In addition to Fiji Water's efforts, Nestle Waters North America (Arrowhead, Deer Park, etc.) has drastically reduced the weight of their plastic bottles, cutting shipping emissions; Evian ships by barge within Europe whenever possible to reduce transportation emissions and also protects the above ground ecology of a massive aquifer; and Gerolsteiner has switched from glass to plastic bottles to reduce shipping weight as well.

More on Bottled Water and Environmental Issues

Bottled Water Drinkers are the new Smokers A World of Reasons to Ditch Bottled Water International Bottled Water Association

This is the first in a series of articles by Pablo Paster, whose "Ask Pablo" column previously appeared on href="">Triplepundit and Got a questions about things like paper versus plastic, Hummers vs. hybrids, or other pressing eco-quandries? Pablo is here to debunk the latest green myths school us in the grey areas of going green. Email him at pablo [at] treehugger [dot] com.

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