Ditching the Bottle: Potable Water and Politics in the US

Bottled water is tremendously wasteful. Huge amounts of energy are required to produce and transport it, and people pay a premium for water in small plastic containers that are often designed for a single use only, which is not exactly the most efficient use of natural resources. The collection of water for bottling often involves the exploitation of low income communities, and in some cases requires environmental degradation. The arguments against the use of bottled water are extensive, and are often brought up in an attempt to change drinking habits.

One problem with the debate over bottled water in the US, however, is that it is often based on the assumption that everyone in the United States has access to potable tap water. This is not, in fact, the case. Which means that discussions about water sales and water politics actually need to involve two separate issues. One is the drive to cut down drastically on the consumption of bottled water, because it is harmful and shouldn’t be consumed in such large quantities. The second is the need for infrastructure improvement, because the solution to not being able to drink out of your tap shouldn’t be buying water from another source. It should be cleaning up your water supply.

Regions with contaminated water often have more environmental problems than what’s in their water. The problem of undrinkable water is a bellwether, indicating that deeper issues are going on. Issues that could damage crops, and make people sick, and contribute to poor quality of life in the community. It should come as no surprise to learn that the regions with the biggest environmental problems, and the greatest chance of not having potable water, are located in rural areas in the United States, and often specifically involve low income people of colour.

Covering the ethnic gap in bottled water consumption for Mother Jones, Jaeah Lee noted that Latino and Black families spend twice as much, and sometimes even more, on bottled water than white communities. She pointed to a number of reasons for this, including very persuasive advertising campaigns designed to push bottled water on these communities. But she also noted that they have reasons to distrust their tap water supply. These can include personal experiences in regions without potable water, even if they live in regions with a secure water supply now, or the fact that some are living in communities where you cannot drink what comes out of the tap.

…3 in 5 African and Latino Americans live in communities that are also home to Superfund sites, which are prone to releasing toxins into nearby groundwater supplies.

Under those conditions, it’s understandable to see why bottled water sales are high in such regions. Simple filtration is not going to fix the problem, and in fact people may be specifically advised to purchase bottled water, because their tap water is not safe. This pushes the financial burden for unclean water onto the residents, rather than regional governments. Retrofitting water supplies to make them safe would be an extremely costly endeavor; environmental cleanup at Superfund sites can take many years and sometimes decades, establishing clean reservoirs also requires checking the entire delivery system from reservoir to tap for signs of leaks and other failures that might introduce contaminants, and the community itself may have no particular reason to trust the government when it comes to protecting their safety.

And of course active water contamination is continuing to occur in many communities in the United States. Fracking, a practice where oil and gas companies inject water to recover valuable deposits, is causing all kinds of problems with wells in the United States. Drops in water pressure, flammable gas emerging from the tap, and a foul taste in the water are a reality for people in some communities where fracking is used as part of drilling operations. Some researchers also suggest the practice might be responsible for earthquakes, extending the public health and safety threat from the tap to the whole house, especially in regions where homes are not designed to withstand seismic events.

The issue with bottled water is not as simple as banning it, although I still believe that stores in regions with potable water for all residents shouldn’t be devoting entire aisles to bottled water sales. Escalating prices to make it harder to purchase in the hopes of pushing consumption down is also not a solution, because this will only increase the expense for people who need to buy bottled water to have something safe to drink. Solving this issue requires not only educating people about the problems with bottled water and encouraging them to seek out alternatives, but making sure those alternatives are available in all communities.

Not everyone can drink from the tap in the United States, and a huge percentage of the world’s population does not have access to safe, reliable supplies of drinking water. For them, bottled water may well be a reasonable stopgap solution to a problem that is not going to go away without considerable effort.

Applying some of the funds from current bottled water sales to improving sanitation and access to water might be a good start, since manufacturers of bottled water products are raking in an extremely large profit annually. Many of these companies also claim to have an interest in social responsibility, and could start putting their money where their mouth is when it comes to the products they market and sell. After all, if they can slap a pink ribbon on a bottle of water and claim five cents goes to some nebulous breast cancer cause, surely they can commit to donating five cents to water improvement initiatives.