It may surprise many people to know that bottled water is a huge sustainability issue, but ponder for a moment the transportation aspect alone and the problems become obvious. According to an article in today’s New York Times importing bottled water from France, Italy and Fiji to the U.S. generates 4,000 tons of carbon dioxide, the equivalent of annual emissions from 700 cars. Consider the other sources and destinations worldwide and it is clear that a huge amount of fossil fuel is being used to transport a commodity that is almost always available locally, but smart advertising has discouraged us from consuming.
Credit the bottled water industry with a brilliant marketing job, selling purity and convincing the public that its product tastes better, is more convenient and is safer than good tap water. From a trickle of Perrier in the early 1980s, consumption of bottled water in America rose to 27.6 gallons per capita last year, according to the International Bottled Water Association.
The public water supply is much more stringently regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency than bottled water is by the Food and Drug Administration. The E.P.A. requires multiple daily tests for bacteria, for example, with the results available to the public; the F.D.A. requires weekly testing, which does not have to be reported to the agency, to the states or to the public.
â€œThe rationale for buying bottled water is a fantasy that has a destructive downside,â€ Dr. Solomon said. â€œThese companies are marketing an illusion of environmental purity.â€
The same article reports that a small number of restaurants are beginning to take action by serving filtered tap water in place of bottled still water and using homemade carbonation for the bubbly variety. One of the movement’s outspoken leaders is Alice Waters of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, CA (my hometown!), and California seems to be leading the way generally, with NYC’s Del Posto and Birdbath Bakery among the few local exceptions. It will be interesting to see the public response to what would ideally become a fast-growing trend; though it is helpful that high end gourmands are leading the way, I suspect this is a marketing conquest that will not be overturned easily. (On a related topic, NY State’s current bottle bill does not allow for recycling of non-carbonated beverage containers, and the industry wants to maintain status quo on that as well.)