Come on, fess up: You never really believed the water inside those plastic bottles was special. You just liked the feel of it; that tiny blast of elitism that came with sipping water purchased retail. It was like the lift one gets walking around with a $100 pair of $3 sandals from China inside an oversized boutique shopping bag identifying the store that just gleefully shanked you on the flip-flops.
Well, enjoy your watery memories because all that’s over. At least the bottled water part. Last week several large corporate bottled water distributors agreed to label their bottles with honest information regarding the source of their water: the kitchen sink.
A group called Corporate Accountability International (those words are like a prayer, aren’t they?) has been putting pressure on bottled water sellers to curb what it believed were misleading marketing practices. Specifically, Pepsico has always sold its Aquafina bottled water with a drawing of mountains over the nameplate implying that the source of the water was mountain springs. Or at least a stream running near the cabin where Heidi lived with her grandfather and the goats.
Now Aquafina bottles will be labeled “P.W.S.” meaning “public water source.” Translation: tap water. This language likely beat out other suggestions such as “P.W.B.” for “posturing with brands” or the more direct “T.W.C.” for “tap water, chump.” Nestle will add the language “municipal sources” to its bottled water, but Coca-Cola is still resisting on its Dasani brand water. Coke thinks it’s enough that the label reads “purified water” which is tap water run through some filters.
Now that the upscale patina of bottled water has been peeled-off, we can focus on the damage empty water bottles are doing. Just like pretending that bottled water was something different, we also deluded ourselves about the mountains of empties growing in our landfills. We somehow imagined a modern day “Rumpelstiltskin” in which a golden-haired maiden was spinning discarded plastic bottles into hip clothing and backpacks. While recycling does take place, only an estimated one in six water bottles gets recycled. And the U.S. alone creates 70 million empty water bottles… per day.
What’s getting more attention now is the so-called “carbon footprint” of our bottled water obsession. Imagine the chain involving making the plastic bottles, wrapping cartons of plastic bottles in plastic for shipping, printing labels and cartons and fuel to move the plastic bottles to stores. One estimate states that 10 million barrels of oil are used in new water bottle production every year.
Which is why I’ve taken on one more plastic bottle: the refillable bottle shown in the photo. With insulated walls and a wide access top, this bottle fills with a generous amount of tap water and ice cubes. It goes anywhere retail water goes, comes back, and does it again. And stylin’? Admittedly there is something very “boomer” and even a little dotty about carrying a refillable bottle. You’ll have to work through that. And there’s always that illusion that disposable things are somehow cleaner. Ironically or otherwise, the EPA standards for tap water are stricter than the FDA standards for bottled water. Testing by groups such as the Izaak Walton League has proven time and again that local tap water is more pure than bottled water.
Santa Monica, with its global focus on our beaches and drunken actresses, should lead the shift away from bottled water. But how can our city provide a model for the nation? Taxing bottled water will only encourage the vanity aspects. Outlawing bottled water doesn’t seem prudent when we know the planet’s on fire and getting warmer. I would propose a three-step plan.
The city should use its considerable communication resources to encourage the use of refillable water bottles. Retailers of tourist goods such as film and cocoa butter should display sensible “green” refillable bottles. And local businesses need to be user-friendly to refillable bottles. Maybe they could display a decal reading: “Need a fill-up? Just ask!” I submit that business might be generated by this open attitude. And eventually it will become cool and fashionable to tote a refillable bottle, in the same way it has become hip to look like you are not part of the problem.