I loathe plastic water bottles. I detest them, I really do. I think they’re ridiculous, wasteful, overpriced and faintly offensive. They’re faintly unhealthy, and insulting. I prefer them to the endless consumption of bottled soft drinks, but I still consider them more pointless. And, in the words of my eighty-five-year-old great aunt, they’re a little bit ‘old lady’.
Let’s face facts. Australia is a first-world country, which means we have among the cleanest water in the world. We have occasional health scares – Giardia, in the 90s, being the last I can think of – but the class of our water systems is such that we know about them. Our water is treated to such high standards that it’s honestly faintly ridiculous, given we use only two per cent of it for actually drinking. In fact, our quality of water is so high that study after study shows people can’t tell the difference between bottle and tap water. When all of that is true, it’s frankly absurd to purchase water at $3 for 600 ml, not to mention wasteful, decadent and sodding selfish. We do not need purified, mountain waters, bottled and transferred to us over hundreds of kilometres. Think of the carbon miles.
And that’s just talking about the water. I also have all sorts of issues with the actual bottles as well. Worldwide, around 24% of all plastic bottles are recycled; in Australia, the total number is around 30%. Given the annual consumption of water bottles in Australia is an estimated 600 million litres, 70% is an awful lot to be sending straight to landfill. The Mount Franklin website assures me that plastic bottles make up around 0.03% of all material in landfill; I presume that statistic is by weight, which doesn’t impress me. I know for a fact a fairly decent percentage of waste in landfill is taken up by soils and building waste, which are sent in by the hundred tonnes; if water bottles in comparison are making up 0.03%, then that means there are an awful lot of bottles.
But then, I don’t really believe in recycling statistics – blame Cradle to Cradle for that. Most of what we refer to as recycling of bottles is in fact down-cycling: the use of recycled materials to create a lower-grade product. In translation, recycled plastic water bottles don’t get used to make more water bottles; they make speed bumps and park benches. Which have a limited lifespan before they too end up in a landfill. Recycling of this type only delays the inevitable, and has a very limited impact on our overall use of resources. The same thing goes for the attempts at using less plastic per bottle – it doesn’t take much of an increase in sales to reverse the impact of a 30% reduction in plastic used, and sales increase every year.
Then there’s the health issues, which themselves affect reuse and recycling. The average plastic water bottle contains a small amount of antimony, which is a toxic heavy metal that can cause cancer under certain circumstances. For an initial use of the water bottle, the amount is probably fine and won’t hurt you, but with reuse of the bottle, the antimony will leach into your water and then into your blood. Companies including Mount Franklin also say that reuse of a bottle can lead to build up of bacteria, and that for your health, you shouldn’t use them more than once. The construction of the bottle is such that it actually cannot safely be reused. How environmentally friendly and health conscious is that?
Yeah, I get that there are festivals and outdoor events and sports where people need to buy drinks, and that buying water is preferable to buying soft drinks in terms of our country’s obesity and diabetes rates. But there are studies showing bottled water consumption is in addition to, not instead of, consumption of soft drinks, so it’s clearly not an either/or thing. I don’t think bottled water is actually helping anything, but it is contributing to a lot of problems. So why don’t we have public bubblers, taps and freely available public water, rather than one small area of the population making a killing from bottled water that pollutes and potentially damages our health?
I’m not saying that selling bottled water is automatically wrong somehow. For example, I’m a big fan of Thank You Water, where every dollar used to buy a bottle goes towards setting up clean water sources in third-world countries. That’s beyond admirable. But I don’t think they’ve solved the antimony problem, or have any way to ensure recycling, either. And until both of those things happen, they’re contributing to the bottle problem here even while they help the water problem overseas. On balance, that might be better, but it still isn’t good.
But the thing I just don’t get is our obsession with bottled water. Yes, it’s chilled and available at every corner store – or in 30 litre bottles especially trucked into your workplace. It’s not better for you, and it’s marked-up – literally – about a thousand times or more on what you pay for water at home. At that kind of rate, is it just convenience? I used to have a friend who bought at least a bottle a day, which by my estimates meant he probably spent over a thousand dollars a year on bottled water. I recently had a holiday to Melbourne for less than that. Even without the environmental, health and resource issues, I’d rather save my money and carry a metal bottle in an esky bag.