Bottled Water Is Evil—but Not Because of the Water

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Aug. 12 2014 6:43 PM

Bottled Water Is Evil—but Not Because of the Water

103090062-bottles-are-seen-on-a-production-line-on-july-19-2010
The bottle itself is the problem, not the water.

Photo by JEAN-CHRISTOPHE VERHAEGEN/AFP/Getty Images

OK, we all know by now that bottled water is pure evil.

The reasons are endless. If you put all 30 billion plastic water bottles purchased in America in 2011 end-to-end, it would stretch to the moon and back seven times. We’ve all seen the documentaries showing what happens to most of that plastic. (Spoiler: It never, ever, goes away.) What’s more, we burn 17 million barrels of oil just to package up water this way (enough to power a million cars for a year), not to mention the amount we use to truck those little bottles around. (Many of which are just filled with purified tap water, anyway.)

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Here’s another: On Monday, Mother Jones produced this set of viral maps showing that most of the country’s bottled water comes from California, which just so happens to be in the midst of an epic, soul-crushing drought.

Barring a tropical storm or other variety of apocalypse, there is really no reason to ever buy bottled water. Bottled water is expensive, and it’s wasteful. But truthfully, exporting bottled water across state lines contributes an incredibly tiny amount to California’s annual water loss. You should never buy bottled water, but it’s because of the plastic, not because it’s making California’s drought worse.

According to the bottled water industry, Americans consume about 30 gallons of bottled water per capita, each year. That may sound like a lot, but you’d do more to stem California’s drought by forgoing a single glass of Napa Valley wine or a single slice of Central Valley cheese. Skipping a single car wash would save more water than two people buy in bottles each year. But here’s the kicker: A single steak dinner uses as much water as almost a lifetime (61½ years’ worth, to be exact) of drinking bottled water. Animal products use so much water mostly because of the inherent inefficiencies of growing hay or grain first, and then feeding it to the animals. Animals raised industrially (not on pasture) are even worse: It takes a lot of water to wash away all the poop that would otherwise just recharge the soil.

Since California’s agriculture uses 80 percent of the state’s water anyway, small changes in your diet can go a long way. And since a good chunk of the entire country’s food comes from California, that means you don’t have to be a local to make a difference.

If you really want to save water during this drought, go vegetarian or vegan—even for just one meal a week.

And if you ever see someone consuming one of these little bottles of death, you have my permission to snatch it from their hands and scream, “How dare you! Think of the children!”

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Eric Holthaus is a meteorologist who writes about weather and climate for Slate’s Future Tense. Follow him on Twitter.

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