I was very surprised when Leeds University emailed me two months ago to ask me to take part in “The Great Bottled Water Debate”, this Tuesday, after their student union had voted overwhelmingly – by 75 per cent, the largest margin any motion had ever passed by – to ban bottled water from campus shops, cafes and bars.
I wasn’t surprised that they were banning bottled water – universities and city councils across North America and Europe have already done the very same.
I was surprised that they were holding a debate at all. Because, really, there isn’t one to be had.
Our lives are filled with unnecessary, wasteful and idiotic things to buy. But few as stupid as bottled water.
The environmental footprint is massive: the Pacific Institute in the US calculates that the carbon footprint for each bottle – when you take into account the oil used to create each bottle, and add to that the energy used to process, package and ship it to the consumer – amounts to the equivalent of filling that bottle a quarter full with oil. American bottled water consumption alone uses 17 million barrels of oil, and if the whole world drank as much bottled water as they do, we’d need a billion barrels of oil to supply demand.
The cost to the consumer is enormous: depending on where you live, buying water in plastic bottles costs 500 to 1000 times more than just getting it from the tap.
Now, most people say they prefer to fork out a buck or two for bottled water because they’d rather drink spring water than tap water. But here’s the funny part: 40 per cent of bottled water is just tap water (sometimes with a little extra filtration, ozonation or added salts to gussy it up).
I could go on and on and on. But I already did – you can read it here.
Suffice to say: few products are as downright silly as bottled water. Folks who work in advertising will always cite it as the best example that proves you can persuade people to buy anything, as long as it has a spiffy logo and a slick name. You can even convince people to pay 1000 times more for the exact same product that comes out of their tap for free. You can even convince people to buy water explicitly labeled as sourced from city taps if you give it the right look – check out Tap’d NY if you’re not convinced.
But it’s not just a harmless scam on unwitting consumers. It’s an unconscionable waste of polymer plastics, which are – let’s not forget – incredible materials. Clear, sterile, flexible and versatile, you can do incredible things with the stuff: syringes and blood bags, records and CDs, computers and cell phones.
I’ve written a lot about the problematic chemicals that are associated with modern plastic products, such as bisphenol A, and have been accused on many occasions of being a socialist, anti-petrochemical luddite. Which isn’t fair.
Because really, in the bottom of my heart, I adore plastic. It’s an incredible material that has utterly transformed the course of human history. Without it could I ever have listened to Fake Plastic Trees over and over and over, on cassette, CD then mp3, for the past 13 years? Unlikely.
But what do we do with this amazing thing that requires so much energy and ingenuity to produce? More than 40 per cent of plastic goes into packaging – from plastic bags to clam shell containers to bottles of water – used once and thrown away. No matter what way you slice it, it’s stupid. Read more about plastic waste here.
Even if you don’t care about the plastic waste that winds up in the ocean, or the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change, you can’t deny that this waste of oil – a finite resource – is nothing but downright brainless.
So I was surprised that they were holding this debate. There is none to be had. Bottled water is essentially indefensible.
But I was looking forward to it, oh yes I was. Why? Not just for the chance to get up on my soap box (though I certainly do love that). I was looking forward to hearing what the representative from Danone (one of the world’s largest bottled water companies) was going to say. What could he (or she) possibly have to say in their industry’s defence?
Well, I had some idea, thanks to the Natural Hydration Council, the unbelievably transparent PR wing of the bottled water industry. I was going to ask them how they got their stat asserting that “97% of bottled water is naturally sourced,” and point out that the universally accepted figure is closer to 40%.
I figured they would argue that humans need “2 litres of fluid” a day to stay hydrated, and point out that a study last year in the Journal of Nephrology found no evidence to support this idea.
And of course I was going to point out that, even if you do want to force two litres of water down your gullet every day, you can do so very easily and cheaply with a nifty, reusable, stainless steel thermos, like the one I just bought from thinksport (such a great name for an undeniably clever product).
Oh my yes, I was looking forward to this. I hadn’t taken part in a good old debate since my days on my highschool debate team.
But – alas – the representative from Danone decided last minute not to come. Instead, a rep from One Water, which sells bottled water to raise funds for clean water projects in Africa (and, similarly, condoms to raise money for AIDS campaigns in Africa), took his place. Though I certainly don’t think that selling bottled water is the best way to raise money for charity, I can understand their view that if people are going to buy the product anyways, they might as well buy one that gives a slice to good causes. Beating up on somebody from an organisation geared around charity isn’t as much fun as laying into a corporate spin doctor.
Lame. Backing out of the debate was really cowardly.
Still though, I had good fun. It was so rewarding to be told that something I had written had actually inspired people to take action – its not often you can be told that, as a writer, and it always makes you proud.
It was also such a delight to see how well informed and passionate the students were. They really understood the issue, and with only one exception they all argued in favour of the ban.
The one student who opposed the ban did so on the grounds that he should have the choice to buy bottled water, and the ban deprived him of his freedom.
Fine. If you want the freedom to be stupid, go ahead and buy bottled water. That really is the only way to define the purchase of this product.
The Natural Hydration Council is certainly not going to give up without a fight – already I’ve seen their ads on the tube.
But I hope that the tide really is turning, people are realising how they have been duped into buying this ridiculous product, and the debate will be laid to rest.
But there’s one more point that I would like to make, that people often forget. Bottled water is actually quite dangerous, in that it “paves the way for privatisation”: if people become accustomed to thinking that they should have to pay for water, they will be more likely to accept the privatisation of public water supplies.
Already schools, hospitals and other government offices are being built without water fountains (and existing fountains in public parks being left to rust) because people are forgetting that they should be there.
Full privatisation would be inefficient and corrupt, and disproportionately affect the poor. But it would also be historically retrograde, and staggeringly naïve. Clean, safe and cheap public water supplies are one of the great cornerstones of civilisation: the Romans took great pride in their drinking water, and created beautiful public fountains for that very reason.
Let’s hope we don’t forget it.
Note: I was invited because I had written a feature for The New Internationalist about the “environmental nightmare” that is bottled water, alongside Jeanette Longfield of food and farming NGO Sustain, and a representative from the bottled water industry. I was incredibly chuffed to have been invited, and proud that they told me that my piece was a big part of the inspiration behind the ban. But of course this piece could not have been written had it not been for the reports produced by people at NGOs like Sustain, the Polaris Institute and Food and Water Watch – nor the hard work of people “on the ground,” as they say, working to create real change.