Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Marvels of Potable Water

Remember bubblers in schools and public water fountains in parks? Potable public water supplies used to be an important characteristic of a developed country. You turn on the tap, and you won’t get poisoned by what comes out. Oh, the things we take for granted!

I’ve been thinking about bottled water for the past year or so. I was a confirmed delivered-water subscriber since the 1970’s, when the taste of water in Santa Barbara was somewhat fishy. We had few luxuries in those Isla Vista apartments, but bottled water was more of a necessity than cable tv, until Saturday Night Live started and we didn’t get NBC through the airwaves. In those days, I thought nothing of drinking from a woodland stream on a camping trip, but I considered tap water disgusting.

For a while, the Sparkletts guy brought both 5 gallon bottles and cases of fluoride kid water. When my Sparkletts bill started topping $100 a month, I put a filter on my fridge and cancelled the deliveries.

The half-full bottles on the soccer field and in my minivan began to annoy me. I bought cases of water, hauled them home, stacked them in the garage, put them back in the car, and the kids would take three or four sips before abandoning these bottles.

The other environmental costs of the water refused to be ignored. All those plastic bottles were waiting to be recycled, and it appeared to me that maybe half of them made it to the recycling can at my house. Cases of water come in cardboard boxes, and are wrapped in plastic, generating more trash on top of the bottles themselves. Add that to the cost of transporting water from the bottler or supplier in trucks (often diesel) and you’ve got a significant contributor to global warming in that water bottle. If the water begins its life in a European glacier or an island in Fiji, that bottle has come a long way to be left half-drunk in a Mazda cupholder.

Meanwhile I started getting emails from people who were raising awareness about turning water into a commodity in the developing world. As the potential for clean water gradually reached Central America, Africa, and the Far East, beverage corporations saw new markets for the product that is least costly for them to produce. Should women in the Third World have to choose among food, education, and water? It’s one thing for us affluent people to pay for water, but shouldn’t it be free for everyone, unless they choose to waste their money?

I think it was Gold’s Gym that got me back to tap water. The water from their filtered fountains is deliciously drinkable, especially after 45 minutes on an elliptical training machine. Why not fill up a Nalgene bottle if I’m going to carry water with me anyway? Why pay Coca-cola and PepsiCo for a product you can get anywhere for free?

Most recently, I read the story of an Ethiopian immigrant who runs a neighborhood mini-mart in a gentrifying neighborhood in Washington, D.C. Stepha Stephanos, the main character in Dinaw Mengestu’s new novel The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, frequently mentions that bottled water is almost the only product that sells to the new people moving into the neighborhood. Stepha doesn’t need to comment on the oddness of people buying water at his store; for a refugee from civil war, the purchasing of all this water when it’s free from the tap is only one of many bizarre American habits. The bodega next door to my house (also in a gentrifying neighborhood) carries bottles of water that are beautifully designed, and cost up to $5 a liter. I imagine burning $5 bills as the Pakistani owner laughs and laughs.

In addition to my Nalgene, I received a beautiful pink pitcher for my recent birthday. Filled with ice and water, it looks much nicer on my table than a bottle with a label referring to its origin in France, Italy, Poland, or Sweden. The local ice water is also fresh, and I don’t feel guilty if it ends up watering plants at the end of the evening.

We’ve been sold a myth about tap water, and I can only think that the commodification of air, sunlight, and sleep are not far behind. Take a deep breath, and drink from the tap when you brush your teeth this evening!


Jim Haight said...

A fine essay, Abby! Thoughtful, witty, and prsonal at the same time.
In a broader context, I quote from the Lonely Planet guide to Rajasthan, Delhi & Agra, p. 74: "Almost everywhere in Rajasthan, Delhi and Agra, plastic bags and bottles clog drains, litter the city streets and deserts, and even stunt the growth of grass in parks. Of growing concern are the number of cows, elephants and other creatures that consume this plastic waste. The antiplastic lobby estimates that about 72% of the plastics used in India is discarded within a week, and only about 15% is actually recycled." We saw this in person in India during February, and the same condition exists in parts of L.A.
Potable water is my answer, too.

Joe said...

The EPA did a study some years ago and found that 33% of all bottled water had nasties in it--from bugs to chemicals--that no municipal water supply would tolerate. I'm all in favor of exposing yourself to ambient toxins, but that's even more than I can tolerate.

Russell Baker wrote a column about 30 years ago in the NYT when white wine was replacing cocktails, suggesting the next step was drinking water. I laughed hysterically. If only I'd known....

Elaine said...

Way to go, Ab! Using a new bottle every time you want a drink of water just doesn't make sense.

Nalgene has been found to leach the worst type of chemicals into your drinking water. See Wikipedia article:

We crunchy granola hikers in Northern California are now never seen without our stainless steel "Klean Kanteens":