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Walking through Times Square on a hot early summer afternoon, I was astounded by the number of tourists gripping bottles of water. It reminded me of a chestnut of New York urban lore. Anyone who has visited inevitably hears it: “We have the best tap water in the country.”
It is good. Really. New York’s aquifers upstate are so well managed that, as yet, City Hall has escaped federal rules requiring practically every other big city to build expensive pre-treatment plants. Here, the water gets some basic filtration and fluoridation, but nothing more. Clean and clear, the city’s H2O routinely places tops in taste tests. But best of all, it’s free — or nearly so.
What ever it costs, it’s a tiny fraction of what bottled water goes for. At $1.25 per 12 oz. serving, for example, a gallon of bottled water costs $10.67. Yet in a country where a paper cup of coffee can go for $5, I’m not so worried about bottled water’s sky-high price. After all, consumers value convenience. Let them pay for pre-bottled water if it, ehm, floats their boat. What’s more, water’s appeal has grown in recent years as a zero-calorie, all natural alternative to sugary fizzy drinks.
And bottled water's growth is great news for big H20 vendors like Nestle and Coca-Cola. Bottled water is the beverage industry’s fastest growing market. In the U.S. consumption of packaged water more than doubled 22.6 gallons per year, in the decade to 2003, according to the Beverage Marketing Corp. That’s over 15 billion bottles of water.
What drives me nuts is the trail of flattened, crushed and glinting plastic garbage left in the wake of all this hydration. The bottles are a problem from cradle to grave. During production and distribution, the energy used to pump, bottle, ship, and chill the millions of bottles water is enormous, especially when contrasted with the highly efficient network of reservoirs, tanks, pipes and spigots that bring water to most homes and buildings in the U.S. Over at PBS.com, a profile of a grad student who has re-used the same water bottle for two years estimates that the energy used to fill, schlep and dispose of bottles of water could power 190,000 U.S. homes per year.
And once the H20 has been chugged, the plastic bottles pose a mountainous waste problem. “But they’re recycled,” you might think. Not so. Here’s why. Similar articles in the New York Times Magazine and in an illuminating post at Grist explain why your Diet Pepsi may get recycled, but an identically packaged bottle of Aquafina probably will not. The Only 11 or so states have so-called bottle bills, where soda bottles and cans be returned for 5¢ or 10¢ deposits. Written in the 1970s, before the bottled water boom, only two of those states have updated their rules to include water.
According to these pieces, the beverage industry has been at best passive about and at worst resistant to extending recycling rules. This is a pity. Those who are put off by this gross waste have no choice but avoid bottled water entirely rather than buy it knowing the bottles are likely to be recycled.
Already, consumers and businesses are pushing back by returning to tap water. High-end restaurants are notorious for pushing $10 bottles of H2O. Yet, in New York, green-minded restaurateurs are giving up those juicy profits. In lieu, they’re offering filtered water, even carbonating the stuff on site, from their own taps.
Rather than risk losing sales, big beverage makers would be smarter to get ahead of this issue, by fighting for a workable national recycling regime. Or, they run the risk of having their all-natural, clean, clear product be tainted with charges of environmental hypocrisy.
Eau de New York, anyone?
* For a deeper dive on the troubles posed by bottled water:
* Detailed statistics on bottled water trends around the world:
* Picking the best bottle: stainless, nalgene or plastic?
BusinessWeek correspondents John Carey and Mark Scott, cover the green scene, keeping on top of the business aspects of energy, the environment and climate change, as well as the technologies, policies, markets and people that are shaping how the earth's resources will be used in the century ahead.