“Have You Given Up Bottled Water?” Um, No. Why Not? (See Below.)

 “Have You Given Up Bottled Water?” Um, No. Why Not? (See Below.)

“Chuck,” wrote a FB friend this weekend, “this one is for you. Or have you already given up bottled water?

“This” was a short rant from a site called “Gizmodo” entitled,  “Stop Drinking Bottled Water,” by Alissa Walker. From the jump, Walker lays her cards on the table: 

Rumor-BW-not-cause“There are few things on this planet I hate more than bottled water,” she declares. “Just the crinkling sound of someone wrapping their mouth around one of those squeaky garbage accordions fills me with rage. I stopped drinking it a long time ago—and you should stop drinking it, too. . . .”

I won’t keep my FB friend who sent this — or anyone else — in suspense here: 

NO, I have not “given up” bottled water. In fact, nowadays I drink almost nothing else, especially at home.

Why is that? For much the same reasons that a recent article in “The Week” magazine about bottled water gave for the rapid growth in its consumption, notwithstanding all the hate-mongering against it:

“Between 1990 and 1997 . . . annual U.S. bottled water sales jumped from $115 million to $4 billion, thanks largely to public concern about obesity and water contamination.”

Bottled water: going UP; Soda: going DOWN; the Twain Are About to Meet. This is a big deal, and I like it.Obesity & contamination. An uphill slog against the former, and deepening concern about the latter; that’s me.

Obesity & contamination. An uphill slog against the former, and deepening concern about the latter; that’s me.

It’s also reporter John Lingan, summarizing many gallons of industry data. And while the trend he pointed to has had bumps, its overall growth is undeniable:

“Bottled water is poised to overtake soda as America’s foremost commercial drink within the next year. Americans drank 10.9 billion gallons of it in 2014, a 7.3 percent increase over 2013. ” 

Lingan’s report was recently confirmed in “The Decline of Big Soda,” in the New York Times.

And you know what? I think this shift is a GOOD thing.  

A North Carolina hog waste water-pollution billboard.

Why? Here, I’m going to skip rehashing the data and arguments  gathered in my previous articles, and point curious readers to them. These include my 2009 “Classic”, the many-times re-posted & linked-to “Top Ten reasons Why Bottled Water Is a Blessing.”   

Regarding the tap water contamination concerns, let me point out to those at a distance that I live in the state with the second largest hog-raising industry, which produces hundreds of millions of gallons of toxic stew, stored aboveground in many thousands of ponds, which leak in to groundwater, spill over into rivers, and jump their banks in gales. (And can anybody spell :”fracking”?) Personally I think it’s nuts not to worry about public water contamination. Nor am I alone in this view.

But I can also point to a more prestigious source, a series of shocking, stunning, mind-bending (and utterly neglected) investigative pieces called “Toxic Waters,” also  in the New York Times. Just the headlines are enough to make one queasy: “Millions in U.S. Drink Dirty Water”; “Tap water often tainted but ‘legal’; and more.

Contaminated drinking water samples from a California public water system. Photo from the NY Times.

Evidently Gizmodo hasn’t seen this work, or has disregarded it. Certainly it doesn’t hold Alissa Walker back:

“Drinking municipal tap water means connecting yourself to your local water system, where the goals are to think holistically about the conservation of natural resources, replenish local aquifers, and build a resilient infrastructure to distribute water to the public.”

Really? If these municipal systems are all so holistically wonderful, what was the New York Times writing –fiction? Or how about this additional report, done for the National Institutes of Health? It’s entitled, “Risk of waterborne illness via drinking water in the United States,” and concludes that “The total estimated number of waterborne illnesses/yr in the U.S. is . . . estimated to be 19.5 M/yr.” 

In this last sentence, “M” stands for million. That’s 19 million illnesses per year, from public drinking water.

By contrast, Walker insists that 

“Drinking bottled water means colluding with a corporation which is not required to release any public information about how it plans to cut costs, exploit workers, dig wells, or employ a fossil-fueled supply chain in its quest to get a bottle of overpriced water into your hands.”

She’s right that bottled water companies should be pressured to be more forthcoming with data and access; and their facilities inspected more often (Tho their safety record overall is quite good).

Nonetheless, my main hope here is that Alissa Walker can get some help for her water rage issues. Because my own explorations suggest to me a long list of things to be more enraged about (which I’ll spare you), while bottled water looks ever more benign.

To a small extent, Walker’s water-rage outbursts are understandable because she lives in drought-stricken California, Los Angeles to be specific. There “rage and hate” at bottled water among certain bien pensant circles has been carefully nurtured by the anti-bottled water campaigners. Special vituperation has been aimed at the several BW companies that are still (legally) taking water out of the ground there and selling it.

Some seem to regard this water bottling as a main source of all the state’s massive water woes. The industry evidently makes an easy target as the yards around LA turn ever browner.

But this charge is absolutely not correct. Not even close.

In fact, as I discovered and reported here some months back, bottled water makes up only a nano-tiny, infinitesimal, doesn’t-even-move-the-needle part of the state’s unimaginable (38 billion gallons every day) water consumption. Getting rid of all bottled water there would do nothing useful about easing the drought. 

One of the REAL culprits in the California water crunch: Big Almonds, Inc. One gallon of water PER nut here. (Chocolate not included.)

Instead, Alissa Walker’s barely controllable “hate” would be much more accurately and usefully directed at pressuring the state’s almond industry; because it takes a gallon of water to grow one single almond; the nuts use up as much as ten percent of the state’s entire water usage. (That’s a truly mind-boggling figure, which I say with regret, as an almond aficionado; but beside it,  bottled water is barely a drop in the bucket.) Add in the rest of California agriculture, and there you are: two-thirds of California water (about 26 billion gallons a day) goes to feed the rest of us. 

Anyway, moving back from California to the U.S. overall, the upshot here is that widespread public water contamination, plus a shift away from fattening and chemical-loaded soda and related sweetened stuff, accounts for the growth in national bottled water consumption, as well as my personal loyalty to it. If this seems worse than most war crimes to Walker and Gizmodo, so be it; but its growth looks quite reasonable to me.

Alissa Walker, while not thinking about bottled water. Photo by Ryan Essmaker.

And Alissa Walker’s rage and hate don’t connect well with either the causes of California’s drought (global warming? Divine vengeance on Disney and Hollywood? Voting Democrat?) or its meaningful policy remedies (taking on that political powerhouse, Big Almonds, and the even more fearsome Big Broccoli; which sounds funny but is not a joke.) Nor does it establish the iniquity of bottled water as an industry or a consumer item.

Pondering the Buzzfeed rant, I was struck by the fact that, beyond the undeniable fact that the water bottlers are for-profit companies, Walker provides no references to back up her charges of all the other iniquities the piece alleges. I wondered how, minus the evidence, we were supposed to take the piece seriously?

Wonderment increased when I googled up an interview/profile of her on another site. Turns out Walker’s educational background is in journalism and advertising, unsullied (like her article) by in-depth exposure to matters scientific. She recalls her professional epiphany thus:

“I very clearly remember walking out to the Mediterranean, sitting on the beach and playing with the rocks, and thinking, ‘This is what I was meant to do: I was meant to tell stories, talk about places, and walk around all day.’”

Which, she says, is what she does, having among other things given up cars. Moreover, she summarized her work at Gizmodo thus:

“I wake up at 6am, start working around 7am, write three or four articles, and end work at 4pm. My title at Gizmodo is Urbanism Editor, so that’s mostly what I focus on, but I write about a million other things, too.”

To be frank, her piece that was re-posted on my Facebook page reads exactly like that: one item among several churned out in standard click-bait mode during one such work shift. (Gizmodo brags that it attracts a hundred million  page views per month; that may be fine for business, but I’m not the first to notice that such frenetic content factories are often more like Chinese baby food factories when it comes to actual research and hard data.)

The upshot here is that, while bottled water sends Alissa Walker and Gizmodo over the edge, her rant about it doesn’t move my needle much.

But it is driving me to drink 

Except not soda or beer.

Come here, you squeaky garbage accordion. Let’s do the crinkle crinkle again.

PS. One of the best meditations on water issues I ever saw was a light-hearted but hardly lightweight sonnet penned in 1962 by the late great Quaker social scientist and systems thinker, Kenneth Boulding. Here it is:

Ode, on the General Subject of Water

Water is far from a simple commodity,
Water’s a sociological oddity.
Water’s a pasture for science to forage in,
Water’s a mark of our dubious origin.

Water’s a link with a distant futurity,
Water’s a symbol of ritual purity,
Water is politics, water’s religion,
Water is just about anyone’s pigeon.

Water is frightening, water’s endearing,
Water’s a lot more than mere engineering,
Water is tragical, water is comical,
Water is far from the Pure Economical.

So studies of water, though free of aridity,
Are apt to produce a good deal of turbidity. 

3 thoughts on ““Have You Given Up Bottled Water?” Um, No. Why Not? (See Below.)”

  1. My understanding is that the vast majority of bottled water is taken from the same sorts of sources as municipal water supplies are taken from. So, it’s no more or less likely to be safe.

    1. Dan,

      I’m not so sure about that. Most of the bottled water labels I see which disclose a “tap water” source, also assert that the water has then been filtered, sometimes more than once. So it is at least putatively purified beyond whatever was done to it by the municipal provider.

  2. Great article! I also think that bottled water companies should really be inspected thoroughly to make sure that the bottled water is safe to drink and not containing any chemicals that can cause diseases to consumers. Thanks for sharing these article.

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