Thursday, October 18, 2007

Waste Water

Sparkling water doesn't just come in a bottle.

This week as Al Gore receives accolades for being inconvenient and telling a truth about global warming, and the British Court system decides that schools can show An Inconvient Truth as long as the other side of the story is also told, another potential eco-problem is piling up as this city warms up - plastic water bottles. In Australia 65 percent of these bottles end up in landfill. Many lie washed up under the mangroves along the riverbank brought in on the tide.

The number of bottles sold in Australia is growing at 10 percent a year. According to the Australian Beverages Council, Australians consumed 40 litres of bottled water per person in 2003, while the Australian Bottled Water Institute says that, last year, we spent a collosal $385 million on 250 million litres of bottled water. But only 35 percent of the bottles get recycled, say the Australian Conservation Foundation.

In a study Environnental Issues: People's Views and Practices (ABS, 2004), the Australian Bureau of Statistics found that 21 percent of households use bottled water compared to 16 percent in 2001 (and 3% in 1994). But paradoxically, while households bought bottled water, most people surveyed (70%) said they were satisfied with the quality of tap water (which they also pay for). So what makes bottled water such an attractive commodity - is it the advertisements?

Advertisements for bottled water depict scenes of pristine mountains, sparkling rivers, rushing waterfalls and glowing tropical islands. These images are meant to imply that the water is actually being bottled from these pristine places; this ensures its purity and quality. But there is no labelling to link what is advertised with what is bottled.

Perhaps one reason is that carrying bottled water is somehow 'cool'. Perhaps there is a hint that the individual is just as pure and pristine as the advertised product. Perhaps it shows a notion of being healthy compared to a carbonated drink, filled with sugar, colour and preservatives (something that children have). Perhaps it's the brand name.

Or perhaps it's about convenience. Carrying a metal Sigg or other re-usable even plastic water bottle may be more cumbersome, not as convenient, not as funky. But there is a whole range of great colours and patterns on such water bottles, so they could be better marketed.

Research on environmental problems associated with plastic water bottles on several websites discusses the issue of the chemical make-up of the plastic bottles and consumer safety, as well as raising concerns about the amount of energy and fuel that goes into the making of the bottles, especially the amount of extra water used in their production (Thompson, 2007). Other sites talk about their place of origin and wonder at the ecological footprint implications involved with importing water from Europe or elsewhere. For instance, Canadian scientist David Suzuki recommends drinking tap water and comments: 'It's nuts to be shipping water all the way across the planet, and us — because we're so bloody wealthy — we're willing to pay for that water because it comes from France.'

And churches in Canada are taking the lead to disparage bottled water use. In February Canadian news reported that: 'Last August, delegates to the United Church of Canada's general council voted to discourage the purchase of bottled water within its churches. The motion called on church members to advocate against the "privatization of water" and to support healthy local supplies of water.' (CBC News, 2007).

Earlier this year on Clean Up Australia day, the local bushcare group collected piles of rubbish along the river much of it plastic water bottles. We gathered a great number of bags of discarded bottles. Maybe people would recycle them if there were enough recycling bins about, but better still, bring your own.

ABS, 2004, Environmental Issues: People's Views and Practices, Cat. 4602.0, Canberra, Australian Bureau of Statistics.
CBC News, 2007, 'Buying bottled water is wrong, says Suzuki. Environmentalist launches national tour on green issues,' Feb 1, 2007.
Thompson K, 2007, Un-bottling our Water Supply, Aug 23,