Our unhealthy attachment to spring water.

News and commentary about environmental issues.
April 21 2008 7:56 PM

Water, Water Everywhere and Not a Drop To Drink

America's unhealthy attachment to spring water.

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What makes matters worse is that very few bottled-water drinkers actually recycle their Evian or Fiji, meaning that our idealization of remote mountain springs has led in practice to ever more mountainous piles of plastic crud around us. By several estimates, fewer than 15 percent of PET bottles are recycled. In fact, recycling rates of water bottles have actually declined since 1994, according to the Container Recycling Institute. One reason is that container-deposit laws, or "bottle bills," generally don't apply to water bottles (and container-deposit laws have a proven effect on recycling rates). Poland Spring is the best-selling spring water in the United States, but most states' bottle bills don't apply to water; Maine is the only one that offers a nickel refund for the popular half-liter version. Meanwhile, bottlers have a shortage of scrap PET to work with, according to CRI, meaning that most bottles are made with new materials.

No one could have anticipated the extraordinary cultural shift that our infatuation with bottled water represents. Today, even green-minded Americans have become significantly less inclined to drink tap water. And perhaps for good reason: Tap water in the United States isn't actually as safe as it could be. At least 92 percent of suppliers meet federal safety standards, to be sure, but the pipes in many old houses and buildings aren't necessarily up to snuff, as Royte underscores in Bottlemania. A five-month investigation by the Associated Press released in March found that there were pharmaceutical drugs and hormones in the water supplies of 24 major metropolitan areas, affecting 41 million Americans.

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But the real reason, clearly, has to do with the confluence of status, health, and—perhaps most powerfully—convenience that bottled water has come to represent. The fundamental root of the bottled-water fad is the American love of single-serve packaging. In fact, by the 1990s the appetite for bottled water was so voracious that it almost didn't matter what was in the bottle: The allure of "pure" mineral water drawn from faraway places had been overtaken by the simple convenience of water in bottles and by dietitians' guidance of overweight Americans toward calorie-free replenishment; along the way, Coke and Pepsi realized that processing tap water might sell nearly as well as "pure" mineral water, and thus brands like Dasani and Aquafina were born. By 2006, 44 percent of bottled-water sales in the United States "came from municipal supplies," according to Royte (who also points out that such processed water is ultimately cleaner than most tap water, even if it comes from unglamorous Queens, N.Y.).

That's why so many ecologically minded people feel it's time for Americans to wake up and smell the toxins, as it were. As ethicist Peter Singer has put it, we have to ask ourselves questions about the value of purchasing bottled water—which involves negotiating the environmental cost of packaging and transporting it—versus the value of drinking tap water. Water, he stresses, is unlike Coke or Merlot or orange juice: We can get it from our own taps, at little (if any) cost to ourselves or the environment. After all, even among purist health freaks, there's no reason not to use coolers (which are less environmentally wasteful than half-liter bottles). Filters haven't caught on with the majority of Americans, perhaps because they're daunting to install, but they are the most sensible and safe alternative to rampant spring-water consumption. Finally, states should pass container laws encouraging Americans to recycle bottled water.

This rampant commodification of water, while in one sense a terrible thing, does make it impossible to ignore a future reality: The fact that we probably are going to end up paying for water. The starker truth hidden beneath the "bottled-water wars" is the reality that the United States is facing a potential water-shortage crisis. The Worldwatch Institute has called water scarcity "the most underappreciated global environmental challenge of our time." If we're really going to open our eyes to the murk lurking within our crystalline Evian, we might even want to put a sin tax on water bottles: Ironic as it may seem, perhaps American purists should be taxed for all the damage that their spring-water addiction wreaks on the world, much the same way many of us are taxed for our affection for alcohol and cigarettes. You might say it would push people to a healthier alternative and force most of us to focus on the real issue: making tap water safer for consumption. We could use revenue raised from such a tax to expand recycling efforts and ramp up efforts to keep pipes clean and municipal water supplies unpolluted. For now, though, the anti-bottled-water motto might be, the cleaner the water you drink, the dirtier the world you live in.

Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at The New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother's death, is now out in paperback.