Banning the bottle
In Concord, Mass., the new year brought with it a new law: a ban on single-serve bottled water.
The town, the first in the nation to issue any ban on bottled water sales, voted in the new law last April with the aim of reducing waste and the amount of fossil fuels used to make the plastic bottles and ship the water.
In Burlington, Vt., a similar ban went into effect this month at the University of Vermont, where the sale of bottled water is now officially banned on campus.
UVM announced its plan year ago, with the university’s Office of Sustainability saying the push came from students who worried about the waste, the environmental costs of producing and transporting bottles and the privatization of a natural resource like water by multinational corporations.
Over the past year, UVM has retrofitted its drinking fountains to make it easier to fill reusable water bottles that students can carry with them.
Adding and promoting “hydration stations” has become popular on college campuses. When my daughter and I were touring campuses last year, we were often shown water filling stations and told how the schools encourage their students to carry their own refillable water bottles with them to reduce waste and to take advantage of the fresh, clean water the U.S. has in such abundance. Even campuses that don’t ban water sales have removed bottled water from their vending machines.
Whether an outright ban or simply offering alternatives is the best way to go, reducing the use of bottled water — especially single-serve bottles — certainly makes sense.
According to Food and Water Watch, bottled water production and transportation uses between 32 million and 54 million barrels of oil a year. And despite plastic water bottles being recyclable, more than three-quarters of them end up being thrown out, according to the Container Recycling Institute.
A lot of cities — including Chicago, Miami and San Francisco — have either stopped buying bottled water or reduced their budgets for it. Waste and cost were at issue, but so was the fact that good quality water was already available. Four years ago, when Seattle stopped buying bottled water, the mayor said one of the major reasons was that the city’s water was pure, abundant and available at a fraction of the price of bottled water. It was a no-brainer.
Last year, bottled water sales ended at the Grand Canyon National Park, where the Park Service had reported that water bottles had made up a full 20 percent of the park’s garbage. The park added water refill stations, and also began selling inexpensive refillable water bottles at its concession stands — at $1.99, they are less expensive than the price often charged for a single-serve bottle of water.
The retail cost of bottled water alone is a good reason to avoid it: Food and Water Watch estimates the cost of tap water at less than a penny a gallon, while bottled water will cost you close to $8 a gallon, and that’s if you can get a 16-ounce bottle for a dollar.
And if you check your bottled water label, you’ll find that you are often getting tap water anyway. The Natural Resources Defense Council says about 40 percent of water bottled in the United States comes from public supplies. And when the bottled water is imported “artesian” water, it could be coming at the expense of local people who need the water, with bottling plants buying water rights to the few clean water wells in countries where many have no access to clean water.
The fact of the matter is that in this country, we have good access to clean water, in our own homes, schools and businesses. There’s no need to buy our water in little plastic bottles, bottles made with chemicals that could be harmful to us, bottles made at a high cost of our finite resources. With gas prices so high, does it make sense to be wasting fuel on creating and shipping plastic bottles?
Especially when it’s easy enough to get into the habit of using a refillable bottle. And if you do find yourself in need of a bottle of water, as sometimes can happen when you’re on the road and left with little other choice, you can reuse your water bottle a few times. And recycle it when you’re done with it.
Margaret Hartley is the Gazette’s Sunday and features editor. Greenpoint appears in the Gazette’s print edition Sundays on the Environment page.
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