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Plastic water bottles, how I loathe thee

plastic water - by quinn.aniaI 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.

WaterBottles1PA_468x324And 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.

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Comments

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Plastic water bottles, how I loathe thee « Overland literary journal -- Topsy.com

  2. Dear Georgia,

    I live in Bundanoon, NSW. Bundanoon is Australia’s first bottled water free town. You would love living here.

    Check out the ‘Bundy on Tap’ campaign online. Basically, concerned residents who are proud of the area’s fresh water, pushed for bottled water to be banned from all shops in town. Now, tremendous drinking fountains are in the main street – one can fill up their official Bundy on Tap water bottle and celebrate a win against the multinationals.

    Take care,

    Mr. Lorne Johnson

  3. Hear Hear! And it’s all in the advertising – according to The Gruen Transfer: bottled water is one of the benchmarks of excellence for successfully selling people what they don’t need and could get, virtually, for free.

    Go Bundanoon – inspiring.

  4. When I lived in Melbourne, I would have agreed with you, and I certainly agree that the vast majority of Australians get terrific water from their taps. Then there’s those of us in the country areas on muddy, heavily chlorinated bore water – perfectly good for washing (as long as you’re not blonde), or flushing the toilet, but looking and tasting horrible. It destroys an electric kettle in under a year.

    People around here either rely on rainwater (probably a better option now that we’re out of drought for now) or, like me, buy my water in 11 litre bottles and fill up from that. I carry my own bottle, but yes, it’s trucked into my home and workplace.

    To add insult to injury, that delicious Melbourne water comes from Gippsland…where I grew up drinking muddy, heavily chlorinated bore water because the city and the power plants take the river and dam water!

  5. According to Melbourne Water, around 80% of our drinking water comes from closed water catchments in the Yarra Ranges, next to Gippsland rather than in Gippsland.

    Useful map here: http://www.melbournewater.com.au/content/water_storages/water_supply/water_catchments.asp

    And Gippsland’s drinking water is largely taken from rivers/streams not bores – http://www.gippswater.com.au/Portals/0/Drinking_Water_Quality_Annual_Report_2010.pdf (pp 8-10)

  6. In the US, at Zion National Park, free to the public water bottle filling stations have been installed and the sale of bottled water has been discontinued. It seems to be working well and the summertime tempertares there reach 110 degrees Fahrenheit. They also have more than 2 million visitors each year.

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