This sample enviromental essay examines the importance of understanding what exactly the impact is of bottled water on environmental health. Bottled water is a ubiquitous commodity in the contemporary world. Though far more expensive per unit of volume than tap water or filtered water, and even gasoline in some places, bottled water is popular and widespread. The environmental impact of bottled water, however, can be significant, and the health impacts on individuals even more so. This type of document would likely be found on a conservation blog or as part of an environmental science course.
Environmental impact of bottled water
Though most people in the U.S. have access to tap water, there is no shortage of bottled water or families who buy it. The reasons for buying bottled water vary—some people buy it because they don’t like the taste or smell of tap water. Others buy it because of health concerns with public water contamination, like what happened in Flint, Michigan. There is no doubt that pollution is one of the biggest problems facing the environment today, and water bottles that are thrown out after each one-time use contribute greatly to its ever-increasing buildup.
The recycling movement continues to gain traction (though certainly not fast enough in comparison to the amount of pollution), but when it comes to water bottles recycling is not a great option. While there are plenty of reusable water bottles on the market, non-reusable water bottles are still in high demand and pose a greater problem: their dangerous plastic. Plastic from non-reusable water bottles has been known to contaminate water with chemicals such as Bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates, and the likelihood of such contaminants leaking increases each time the plastic is reused, heated, or goes anywhere room temperature or above. Currently there is no feasible solution for the problem of the polluted environment versus polluted water.
Tap vs. bottled water
While we are always being told to drink our eight glasses of water a day, we are not usually advised about which is the best water to drink. Of course water bottles companies might provide encouragement that their water is superior to tap water, their recommendation is financially biased. As for public water, its levels of purity depend greatly on geographical location. Even if there are studied conducted on the safety of a particular areas drinking water, a convenient report or research paper on that data is rarely available to consumers.
Since it can be a daunting process trying to figure out exactly what the water contaminants are in a particular location, more and more people are either investing in a water filter and/or buying bottled water. In fact, there is a boom of “willingness to pay” for water, whether by filter or bottle, and while bottled water is certainly the less environmentally-friendly option, many people think it is superior to filtered tap water (Johnstone et al.2012).
The water bottle industry is a huge one, raking in billions of dollars each year. Some of the top-selling brands are Aquafina (owned by PepsiCo) and Dasani (owned by The Coca Cola Company) and Poland Spring (owned by Nestle). Ironically, these are brands that made billions of dollars by selling fat loaded sugary drinks, so of course they would be profit motivated. Billions of liters of water are sold each year, not only making water bottles a lucrative business, but also leaving behind millions of tons of plastic waste. Since plastic is not biodegradable, this waste ends up lying in landfills or polluting the ocean. In recent years public awareness about pollution continues to rise; simultaneously, however, public awareness about the dangers of bottled water rises too
Perhaps the biggest public concern of bottled water has been BPA. Though there are other water contaminants, BPA has been reported quite thoroughly by the media since it started being exposed for its relation to various reproductive damages and cancer. The media’s largest concern seemed to be about children, as the first products to be regulated regarding their BPA content in the U.S. were baby bottles and containers.
There is now a growing range of BPA-free products, from reusable water bottles to cans of tuna (though the tuna cans are harder to find, as are most canned-food products that are BPA-free). Despite the awareness of the dangers of BPA, there are still no BPA-free water bottles that are made for one-time use, as producing a higher-quality BPA-free water bottle for drinks that are usually only a dollar would not be cost-effective for the companies involved.
BPA has been most widely studied lately, perhaps because of its clear health hazards, but also because many of its risks are still unknown. BPA is an endocrine disrupting chemical (EDC) which
“impact[s] the actions of endogenous estrogenic steroid hormones” and, as shown through animal studies, has “negative effects on the reproductive function resulting in decreased fecundity, alterations in embryonic development, and impacts on carcinogenesis” (Cooper, et al. 2011).
Because bottled water is considered food (it’s consumable), it is regulated in the U.S. by the FDA, who are not known to be strict when it comes to unfamiliar chemicals such as BPA.
Cancer and hospitalizations associated with bottled water and BPA
Though there are no known deaths directly correlated with drinking bottled water, chemicals such as BPA cause damage in the long run that can lead to terminal illnesses such as cancer. A few of the largest bottled water companies—PepsiCo (Aquafina) and Nestle (Poland Spring, Perrier)—have been brought into the light by random cases of water bottle poisoning, but none have had significant losses in their market.
Nestle has had several class-action suits filed against them for their falsely-advertised Poland Spring water. The company claims that Poland Spring water is derived from
“deep in the woods of Maine,” but in reality “draws its water from a site 30 miles away from the original Poland Spring and often uses ground water and a spring that is near the site of a former garbage dump” (Day, 2003). T
PepsiCo, indirectly has basically admitted that Aquafina is just filtered tap water, yet people continue to buy it.
In 2000 there were five cases in New York where people were hospitalized after drinking bottled water that was somehow tainted, but the causes of illness were never identified for any of the cases. The most serious case involved a woman who was hospitalized after she started bleeding from the mouth while drinking Perrier water. Cases like these have been difficult to trace for numerous reasons. Stores from which contaminated water was sold have cooperated with recalling the brands in question, but since water bottle company spokespeople want to protect themselves, they have not been as helpful about releasing information about what could be contaminating their water (Dean, 2000).
Shortly after one man, Edwardo Pardo, was hospitalized for drinking contaminated water, he was arrested for tainting his own bottle of Poland Spring water with Clorox bleach to make a stir (New York Times, 2000). Events like Pardo’s make it even more difficult for authorities to decipher what is going on with bottled water, but these instances have not entirely escaped the public imagination since many people are growing more and more concerned.
One concerned mother, Alina Tugend, began researching water bottles, and though she did find dangers, she decided that the convenience of drinking bottled water outweighs the risk. She was reassured enough by a claim by Lynn Goldman, a professor of environmental health, that phthalates—chemicals that interfere with male hormones—are “leached in barely discernible amounts” into bottled water (Tugend, 2008).
What Tugend did find more worrisome is the bacteria that can be housed in water bottles if they are re-used. In an effort to help the environment, Tugend had always washed and reused water bottles until they were too crinkled to work. Because her kids have a tendency to leave stuff everywhere, she didn’t want to invest in BPA-free water bottles that are made to be reused. Tugend didn’t really have a clear conclusion for her article about what to do, but her concerns for the environment and her family’s health and the contradictions between the two are becoming more typical of informed water drinkers.
Plastic buildup from water bottles is a problem
Not only is plastic itself a problem as it builds up in the environment with nowhere to go, another issue is the kinds of chemicals that plastic is made from. Polyethylene terephthalate (PET)—the chemical Tugend decided to not fear—is used by many plastic producers, but bottled water accounts for 20 percent of its market. According to a 2009 report by Rebecca Coons, Aquafina is the number one selling bottled water in the U.S., and they have been pressured to take environmentally-friendly steps in their bottle production, cutting their PET use in half. “The ‘Eco-Fina’ bottle will eliminate 75 million lbs of PET annually” (Coons, 9), which puts into perspective the staggering amount of PET that is typically used. Still, analysts claim that demand for PET is dropping, and will continue to do so as the public becomes more aware of its environmental footprint.
There are plenty of emergencies when people are out and need water, so it’s not logical that production of bottled water should completely stop. Perhaps, we would be better off if we bought less bottled water. If people did buy less of it, there would be less of an impact on the environment by plastic and the PET it’s made from, and people wouldn’t have to worry as much about what chemicals are leaching into their water.
Though there are concerns about re-usable water bottles leaching BPA, BPA-free products are increasing all the time. For people with kids who lose water bottles a lot, that situation clearly becomes trickier, but one is well advised to still opt for the BPA-free bottles. In the end, it is convenient to have bottled water sold for emergencies, so if we only buy it when necessary, that will be better—for ourselves and the environment.
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Coons, R. (2009). AquaFina Reformulates to Use Less PET. Chemical Week, 171(10), 9.
Cooper, J. E., Kendig, E. L., & Belcher, S. M. (2011). Assessment of bisphenol A released from reusable plastic, aluminium and stainless steel water bottles. Chemosphere, 85(6), 943-947. doi:10.1016/j.chemosphere.2011.06.060
Day, S. (2003, June 20). Suit Disputes Integrity of Poland Spring Water. New York Times. p. 2.
Dean E., M. (2000, September 15). 2 More Illnesses Linked to Bottled Water. New York Times. p. 3.
Johnstone, N., & Serret, Y. (2012). Determinants of bottled and purified water consumption: results based on an OECD survey. Water Policy, 14(4), 668-679. doi:10.2166/wp.2011.048
New York Times. (2000, September 22). Man Accused of False Tainted-Water Claim. New York Times. p. 8.
Tugend, A. (2008, January 5). The (Possible) Perils of Being Thirsty While Being Green. New York Times. p. 5.