The crusade against bottled water has become something of a standard feature of environmental activism among Friends. I discovered this a couple years ago when some self-appointed eco-elders came after me for having ordered several cases of bottled water with distinctive labels.
Good heavens, I wondered as their ire crashed down—what had I done? To listen to the indictment, giving away bottled water at a Quaker event was a mark of moral turpitude that fell somewhere between recruiting torturers for Guantanamo and handing out heroin to preschoolers.
Well, call me clueless and provincial, but this notion came out of the blue. In its wake, I figured it would be a good idea to find out what all the shouting was about, so I did some reading and digging.
Much of the anti-bottled water (or BW) propaganda can be traced back to an outfit in Ottawa, Canada, called the Polaris Institute. On the other side, the defenders of BW seem centered in the International Bottled Water Association, a trade group in Alexandria, Virginia.
After considerable study, I came to two conclusions on this topic. First, the water problem, in the U.S. and the world, is very real and very serious. And second, the anti-BW crusade is a mistaken, misleading, and misguided way to tackle these issues.
Indeed, the more I studied, the more clear it seemed that BW was not at all the plague upon humanity its attackers claim it to be. Quite the contrary: at the end of the day, I believe we’re very lucky to have it around. Why? Below are my Top Ten Reasons (plus three), a description of which will also suggest much of why I regard the anti-BW jihad as unsound. Here we go:
1. Safety—a major anti-BW complaint is not about water, but about the plastic containers most of it comes in. And to be sure, there are drawbacks to plastic. Yet, consider the alternatives. No, not the ten-dollar or more stainless steel mini-jugs that are fashionable in some quarters; their appeal is strictly limited. Glass containers are the primary alternative containers in the marketplace, and they were what plastic supplanted.
Glass containers are pretty benign in recycling terms. But they have a real downside: their broken remnants are the cause of thousands of serious injuries each year, especially in poorer neighborhoods, which is the main reason they were largely replaced by plastic in the first place. The switch was made initially by moms, because kids could carry the bottles safely. Beware of trying to take this away from them. (A 1998 study in distressed Philadelphia neighborhoods showed that broken glass injuries from bottles incurred in public spaces, especially by children, were still quite common. See.)
2. Bottled water is an absolutely critical lifesaver in many natural disasters. Check the lists of emergency supplies put out by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Look at the pictures of the Hurricane Katrina aftermath and other calamities. In almost all such events, public water systems are made unusable almost immediately, sometimes for a long time. Then it’s BW or death by thirst or toxic poisoning. I would hope Friends think long and hard before joining efforts to make this resource more scarce.
3. Bottled water is not a significant contributor to actual water problems. This is a very important point, so before going any further let me repeat that water problems are very real in the world, and in the U.S. But all the BW in the U.S. accounts for less than one hundredth of one percent of water consumption. If it all disappeared tomorrow, this would have no measurable effect on the very real water problems the U.S. faces (ditto the world).
4. Bottled water has a substantial shelf life. This is especially valuable for emergency preparedness, but also for many other purposes.
5. The anti-BW indictment paints the product as an intolerable luxury, pointing out that its price can be several dollars per gallon. But of course, one typically does not buy...
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