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The invisible high price of your little bottle of water

Droughts and Heat WavesWeatherBeverage IndustryFiji
The oil used to make the plastic for all those bottles of water each year could fuel 1.3 million cars
Plastic bottles are shipped to Fiji to be filled, then shipped to us. A crazy way to get a drink of water

Bottled water is usually a waste of money and, beyond that, an environmental mess. American buy 50 billion bottles of water each year, and recycle less than one-fourth of those bottles. It’s a tremendous source of landfill waste, but worse, 17 million barrels of oil are used each year to produce those bottles. That’s enough oil to power 1.3 million cars a year.

Now people are starting to question the environmental cost of allowing water-bottling operations in the state’s drought-stricken areas — specifically, Arrowhead Mountain Spring Water. The Desert Sun reports on concerns that during an ongoing drought, Nestle, the Arrowhead water company, is drawing unknown amounts of groundwater to fill all those single-use plastic bottles with its purified water. The state has questioned some of the water rights involved; Nestle is leasing the land from the Morongo Indian tribe.

In a region that faces worsening drought because of climate change, more questions will be raised on whether precious groundwater and surface water should go to the bottled water industry. The public would have the right to know at least how much water is involved, but because the pumping and bottling take place on sovereign Indian lands, no reporting is required. On the other hand, though the idea of shipping bottled water is troubling in times of drought, tremendous amounts of water are used in other industries as well. And if large-scale fracking should start up in California, the amount of water needed for injection would eclipse anything taken by Nestle.

A more troubling source of bottled water is Fiji. Yes, the water in those exotic, square-shaped bottles is truly exotic. It’s shipped all the way across the ocean from the South Pacific. But only after the plastic bottles, which are manufactured elsewhere, are shipped to Fiji to be filled.

Really? We need to waste this much power and resources for a bottle of water? The virtually free stuff from our taps, via a piping system that’s already in place, is so bad that we buy water from thousands of miles across the ocean?

OK, yeah, despite taste tests to the contrary, tap water in this region does taste pretty bad. But filters can take care of a lot of that, chilling it improves the flavor, and purified water vended directly into reusable jugs costs only about 35 cents a gallon. That’s less than a pint bottle of water costs.

Bottled water can be a great convenience on a hot day. But we could save ourselves a lot of money, save space in landfills and help the environment in a whole host of other ways by viewing bottled water as exactly that: an occasional convenience rather than a daily necessity.

Many environmental problems are difficult to resolve. But water is as basic an issue as the elements that constitute it. Bringing back that good old staple — the public drinking fountain — and getting in the habit of carrying a bottle for refilling when practical is all it takes.

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Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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