Friday, January 19, 2007

Water, water, everywhere

SFGate (the SF Chronicle's website) is in the midst of a series of articles by David Lazarus on bottled water. On Wednesday, Lazarus introduced the phenomenon and big business of bottled water; today, he discusses the sources of bottled water. The series will continue at least through Sunday.

Yes, people drink an enormous amount of bottled water, and spend a lot of money on it. Businesses spend a lot of money advertising it, and the water itself is often just filtered tap water with a few minerals added for taste. None of this seems particularly newsworthy. But it is always interesting to be reminded of the phenomenon, particularly of all those taste tests showing that people can't actually tell the difference between most municipal tap water and their favorite bottled water brands.

I'm mainly concerned with the use of tons of plastic containers to carry the water. Apparently, the American public drinks more bottled water than milk, coffee, or beer. This seems astounding, though it is difficult to imagine exactly what 8.3 billion gallons of bottled water last year means in terms of large scale waste in America. If you've ever been impressed by the amount of beer bottles you set at the curb after just a small gathering, imagine the volume generated by your block, city, or country every day, week, or year. The coffeehouse coffee phenomenon alone generates a significant amount of waste, as people use disposable and discardable cups for their daily--sometimes multiple times daily--fix.

A Starbucks "Green Team" memo quoted in the March-April 2004 Utne Reader cites the following staggering statistics: First, if just 50 customers in each store used their own mug for coffee each day, the store (and the planet) would save 150,000 disposable paper cups each day. Second, those 150,000 paper cups saved would have weighed 1.7 million pounds.

It is hard to wrap my mind around the level of waste that could be avoided by the small actions of just 50 Starbucks customers per store per day, much less to conceive of the amount of waste generated each day, in Starbucks stores alone, by all the people who do not use their own mugs.

The Starbucks memo was meant, I think, to encourage stores to encourage their customers to use their own coffee mugs in exchange for a $0.10 discount on their coffee. This saves paper, but also, of course, saves Starbucks a lot of money. This program, along with the disposable coffee and bottled water phenomena and statistics have inspired the following grand idea: What if we encouraged people to carry their own plastic water bottles or cups around with them? We could then place some kind of water dispenser into stores, restaurants, homes, and workplaces, and give consumers a good price on the water used to fill these bottles and cups.

Seriously, though, if people want to pay for water, let them. If people just want their water filtered--and this is something I can understand--wouldn't it be more cost-effective to offer filtered tap water dispensed into reusable cups than to buy and/or sell overpriced filtered water in possibly toxic and difficult to recycle containers? Unfortunately, the convenience factor of picking up, drinking, then tossing, seems to outweigh other concerns. We've been conditioned to think that plastic bottle disposal is harmless, particularly if we recycle, and the disposable water industry has no interest in encouraging us to think about the inconvenient truths of bottled water waste.

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