By Elizabieth Ruksznis | PARK SLOPE READER | Winter 2007
The summer of 2006 will be remembered (at least for me) not for the birth of Suri Cruise, but as the summer I finally broke down and bought an air conditioner. As temperatures uncomfortably reached into and beyond the 90s, we all did what we had to in order to stay cool, and for me, it meant sacrificing my only bedroom window and its view for 5000 BTUs. It was on one of those sweltering days, after walking by a garbage can overflowing with plastic bottles, that Barbara Kancelbaum had a thought.
"It was 100 degrees for days in a row. Everyone was bemoaning global warming and the horrible way the air felt," she said. "Those same people were walking around with bottles of water. I realized that even people who are very concerned about the environment have no idea of the many negative effects of bottled water."
That is, she said, because the creation, packaging, transportation and consumption of bottled water has an environmental impact above and beyond the little plastic bottle in which it is served.
So the longtime activist and mother of two put her concerns into action. In a posting on the Park Slope Parents website group, she challenged her neighbors to act locally on a global challenge. Kancelbaum wrote:
Here's a thought about something tangible we can do — and potentially inspire others to do as well. In trying, over the past year, to think about what we might do as a community, I keep returning to the issue of bottled water. This is a product that has a detrimental impact on the environment from multiple perspectives — many of them hidden from view. So I'm submitting this modest challenge to my fellow Park Slope parents. What if we eliminated or cut way down on purchasing bottled water — say for a week, a month, or forever? I wonder what impact we could have?
And the impact of her posting is still being felt in the months since she posted her August challenge.
"The Park Slope papers picked it up and WNYC picked it up and that really spread the news," she said. "The Park Slope Parents listserv is an amazing vehicle because nearly every day I run into someone now who will say that since they saw my posting, they have not bought a bottle of water, which is truly an incredible response to the posting."
I think it can be safely argued that the residents of Park Slope are among the most progressive, informed and involved people in the greater New York City area. We shop at the food co-op. We separate our recycling and discuss the veracity of Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth" at PTA meetings. We are even spending the extra money on those swirly-looking light bulbs because they are better for the environment.
At the same time, it is becoming a more affluent community, with apartment rents climbing as high as their Manhattan counterparts, and Humvees fighting with Priuses for parking along 7th Avenue. If you were to chart these two concepts on a graph you might just find a bottle of water at the intersection point where affluence outstrips environmental conscience.
"They say it is the most affluent people who make the biggest footprint on the earth and with increased affluence people are able to buy convenience for themselves. Sometimes that convenience translates into negative effect on the environment," said Kancelbaum.
Bottled water is seemingly a vision of health — clean, tasty, healthy and pure. Rows after rows of the stuff line the refrigerators in every neighborhood bodega. And sales of resource are through the roof. According to the Beverage Marketing Corporation, wholesale sales of bottled water exceeded $10 billion in 2005. US residents now drink more bottled water annually than any other beverage other than soda. Our per capita consumption in 2005 was 26.1 gallons, up nearly 10 percent from the previous year. Worldwide, the Earth Policy Institute says global consumption of bottled water in 2004 was
41 billion gallons — up 57 percent from five years earlier.
But as this industry grows, so does its practical consequence. According to the Container Recycling Institute, Americans will buy an estimated 25 billion single-serving, plastic water bottles this year and eight out of 10 of those bottles (or 22 billion) will end up in a landfill. In addition, everyday more than 60 million plastic bottles end up in landfills and incinerators, and six times as many plastic water bottles were thrown away in the United States in 2004 as in 1997. Once they hit the landfill, a plastic water bottle can take 1000 years to degrade.
"The making of the bottles themselves — even if they were to be recycled — uses crude oil and emits hazardous chemicals into the environment," said Kancelbaum, ticking off the environmental problems with bottled water that go beyond the waste of the bottle itself. "And the more exotic the water, the farther it has traveled. Since water is very heavy, it uses up a huge amount of natural resources and causes a huge amount of pollution just to be transported."
A problem, she said, is the perception that bottled water is healthier than tap water. And while that may indeed be true in some parts of the world, New York City happens to be blessed with very clean drinking water.
"In New York tap is as healthy, if not more so, than most bottled water," Kancelbaum said, and it is a point echoed by Dr. Lisa Baker, a Park Slope area pediatrician.
"We would be so lucky if the world had New York City quality tap water," she said and added that she recommends tap over bottled water to her patients' parents. "We don't have a whole lot of worries here about tap water. It is very safe and people can and in fact should use tap water because it has fluoride in it."
And what about the assumed purity of bottled water? Tap water is regulated by the Environmental Protection agency and bottled water, as a packaged food product, is regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration.
"No one should assume that just because he or she is purchasing bottled water that it is necessarily better regulated or purer or safer than most tap water," said Eric Goldstein, co-director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's Urban Program, specializing in environmental issues affecting New York City and surrounding metropolitan areas.
The NRDC conducted a four-year review of the bottled water industry and the safety standards that govern it — including a comparison of national bottled water rules with national tap water rules, and independent testing of more than 1000 bottles of water. It concluded in 1999 that there is no assurance that just because it is bottled it is any safer or cleaner than your average tap water. In fact, NRDC said that an estimated 25 percent or more of bottled water is really just tap water in a bottle.
So while it may not be any worse than tap, it is not a magic elixir.
Big oil and big tobacco are very much the obvious bogeymen threatening our heath and environment. But big water? I called the International Bottled Water Association to get their take on the argument against bottled water and according to Stephen Kay, IBWA's vice president of communications, it is a matter of choice — both in what you want to drink and what you do with the container after you do.
"It is not a bottled water vs. tap water world," he said. "Our industry does not market itself or build itself by disparaging or trying to undermine consumer confidence in tap water. Bottled water is a beverage option for hydration and refreshment for consumers that want to avoid calories, caffeine, alcohol, artificial colors or sugars, etc. New York in particular is fortunate that it has a high quality drinking water system; however there are thousands of communities that are not as fortunate."
And in this on-the-go world, he said, if people were not drinking bottled water they would most likely be drinking bottled something else.
"Supermarkets now have beverage aisles that are lined with soft drinks, energy drinks, juices, you name it," he said. "We find that most consumers drink a mix of bottled water on the road or while they are out, and then drink or use tap at home. We are a packaged beverage society and if consumers were not choosing bottled water they would be choosing other on-the-go beverages."
As for the garbage created by empty water bottles, Kay said it is not so much about bottled water as a product, but the need for more comprehensive recycling programs.
"It is not the nature of a bottled water container to end up in a landfill," he said. "When you see these containers in a landfill or as litter it is just indicative of the overall challenge of recycling that the whole country faces. A bottled water consumer is not apt to recycle any more or less than any other consumer. It is just an overall sign for the need for increased vigilance and education about recycling."
There were days in December 2006 that hit 60 degrees. 1 saw tourists hitting midtown for the holiday shopping in shorts, and for those of us who love the northeast because you see all four seasons, that is just wrong. But it is also a gentle reminder that global warming is a problem that if not addressed, will have some not so gentle consequences.
I happen to be one of those people who is buying the swirly energy-efficient light bulbs and who is trying to make a better effort to recycle. And since starting this article, I have indeed relied more on tap water, not because 1 think that there is anything necessarily insidious about bottled water as an industry but because the less waste 1 contribute, the better I sleep. (For the record, I don't drink juice or sodas so I am already not contributing those bottles to the waste system.)
"I think a lot of people who are health conscious think they are doing a good thing when they buy bottled water because at least they are not buying soft drinks," said Kancelbaum. "But really they are not doing themselves or the world any favors. Most people buy bottled water because they are thirsty and it is convenient and they don't necessarily bring a big agenda. It is particularly those people who can easily live without it who I am trying to convince."
And as the weather heats up again this summer, expect to see Kancelbaum continuing her case.
"So many people have said to me that they thought there was something wrong with bottled but didn't know what. Now that they have the facts, they say it is so easy to do without," she said. "I hope that by next summer when .the bottles start coming out in huge numbers, we can really start seeing a difference."
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