Fast Company

Peter Gleick With More Reasons to Stop Drinking Bottled Water

Photo Credit: ricardo/zone41.net

World renowned water expert Peter Gleick has a new book--released in May 2010--outlining the scientific evidence that bottled water use in the U.S. has become unsustainable. The book is called Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind our Obsession with Bottled Water.

Peter Gleick: Twenty five years ago in the United States, each American probably drank a gallon of bottled water a year, on average. Today it's up to 30.

Gleick told EarthSky that--every second in the U.S.--we consume about 1,000 bottles of water. He spoke of the tremendous amount of fuel burned in order to make and transport these bottles, most of which ultimately end up in a landfill.

We did an estimate at the Pacific Institute that if you calculate the energy requirement of making all of the bottles that are consumed the United States in a year, it's on the order of 17 or 18 million barrels of oil equivalent.

He said there are lesser known environmental impacts of bottled water--such as groundwater depletion. He talked about visiting a bottled water facility in California.

It turns out that the source of that water is a desert spring up in a remote canyon in the deserts near Palm Springs. The more water you take out, the less water you have for flow in the springs, the less the rare desert ecosystems have to survive. And that sort of problem is being repeated around the country.

And around the world. He said the global consumption of bottled water is about 40 billion gallons a year. But that's not his biggest concern.

Probably my biggest concern is that I believe very strongly that water is a human right. There are a billion people worldwide today that don't have access to safe tap water. The solution is not bottled water. The solution is developing high quality public water systems that can provide inexpensive water for everyone.

He spoke of public versus private control of water systems.

And it does raise this question about public versus private control. I believe that water ought to be available to the public. We have an incredible tap water system that's been built and operated and owned by the public. I think that's a good model for the rest of the world, but we don't see it yet.

His scientific opinion is that tap water in the United States is, generally, excellent. In fact, he added, about 45% of bottled water is filtered municipal water.

American tap water is carefully monitored. It's carefully regulated. But I'd be the first to argue that it ought to be better. There are places in the United States where people don't have safe drinking water, mostly in rural areas where wells aren't monitored by municipal agencies or federal agencies.

He said our Safe Drinking Water Act is outdated, and that our water-treatment technology needs to be upgraded. But all of those things can be done at a far lower cost than providing bottled water, which often isn't monitored as carefully as our tap water. The first step, he believes, is to maintain and expand a state-of-the-art tap water system.

It's the cheapest, most equitable, most environmentally sound solution. I think if we did that--if we restored confidence in our tap water--bottled water sales would drop.

Written by Beth Lebwohl
Photo Credit: ricardo/zone41.net

Peter GleickPeter Gleick is co-founder and president of the Pacific Institute in California, a MacArthur Foundation Fellow , and an internationally recognized water expert. His research and writing address the critical connections between water and human health, the hydrologic impacts of climate change, sustainable water use, privatization and globalization, and international conflicts over water resources. He's a blogger for the Huffington Post, and was named "Visionary: A Catalyst for an Enlightened Future" by the Los Angeles Times in early 2010.

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5 Comments

  • Vikram B

    @Ben Komment.....taking X amount of water from a desert spring is not the same as taking X amount of water from your local supply...the effect can be many time more. If you cannot drink tap water atleast try getting bigger plastic containers. May be those can be more easily recycled. Don't avoid solutions...look for them.

  • boyd jackson

    I hate to spend a buck for a drink of water...having said that I must admit I do buy a lot of water while shopping and traveling too. The only source is some drinking fountain that appears to have been a previous rest room or trash receptacle. I do carry water from home when I travel but it has all but become undrinkable from our provider Jonah Water Supply in Williamson County Texas ( I think it is mixed with sewage as it smells bad or has a chlorine odor that burns your eyes). What choice do we have but to buy a plastic water bottle? Maybe put a dollar deposit on them to help keep them outa the landfill..... or maybe get that marvelous txdot to install a maintained rest area....... they sure don't do anything else.

  • Bennie The Bouncer

    Look; if we're drinking water from spring X, then we're NOT drinking water from the local area. So it balances out. It's not like we're drinking a different *amount* of water.

    I'll grant you the whole plastic bottle thing is unfortunate, but it costs less to transport them, for instance, than it does glass bottles, because they're considerably lighter. Recycling them at least a few times would be smart, and that's something we should probably be pushing for -- but in general, this panic is both overblown and uncalled for.

    It never cases to amaze me how people can get worked up over the most inconsequential things. Here we are, undertaking not one, but *two* unjust wars, having already spent over a trillion dollars and gotten *nothing* back for it but one completely destabilized country (Iraq), a nation of scattered, but very combative tribesmen (Afghanistan), killed 100000 Iraqis, many thousands of US service-people, and earned the disrespect of the entire world.

    And this guy is panicking over water bottles.

    Good grief.

  • D. Lunberry

    Thank you for your book, Peter! What a breath of fresh air -no pun intended- to get more awareness around this issue of the growing bottled water craze. Having grown up in countries where I didn’t have the luxury of drinking water straight from the tap, it is sad to me that so many people here in the US view bottled water as a fad or a convenience taken for granted. Shouldn’t it be the other way around? Shouldn’t we recognize the uniqueness of having clean tap water and promote the trend of wanting to help other countries gain this level of infrastructure? The irony of it all is the “be green” ads by bottling companies, such as Ice Mountain, who promote their products as "Eco-Shape" and having an “Eco-Slim Cap.” Wow.