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Last night I participated in a panel discussion at a cute little theatre in Asbury Park following a showing of the documentary film, “Tapped“. I’ve never been up on a stage under lights so bright that you couldn’t see anyone in the dark audience. Otherwise, I would have thanked the person who shouted out “REFUSE” during the program. Refusing bottled water and explaining why, is not a bad way to help turn back the bottled water invasion.

I have refused any number of things on the grounds of not wanting to be wasteful, but I hadn’t thought of it as an actual strategy that could be added to the existing three Rs until last night. I found this graphic where the three “Rs” had been expanded, so why not add another?
Reduce, Refuse, Recycle
My personal favorite is refusing the bottles of water already on the tables at my favorite restaurant. In stores, I sometimes have to refuse disposable bags numerous times during the check-out process, or they’ll put something in one. On Sunday, we were supposed to individually wrap some goodies for a bake sale at church – are you kidding? Today, of all days, they are selling bottled water at the middle school talent show. Time to say no, again.

This “R” has the potential to save both time and money as well as reducing waste. The challenge is in communicating the REFUSE in a persuasive way without getting people annoyed. I may have to work on that!

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March 22, World Water Day, doesn’t have the name recognition of Earth Day, but it’s definitely gotten more attention this year.  In 2009, Back2Tap ran brief campaign to tie into World Water Day, but it didn’t really gather much momentum.  This year, several like-minded groups have made World Water Day a major milestone.  Tapped, a documentary movie about the bottled water industry, kicked off its cross country tour to 30 cities in 30 days yesterday.  Claiming that one day is not enough, the Tapped tour is celebrating World Water Week this week.  Food and Water Watch ran a Take Back the Tap Virtual Facebook March yesterday.

So why all the excitement about water this year?  Maybe it was watching the tortuous process of supplying clean drinking water to millions of displaced people in Haiti.  Maybe it was the growing realization that bottled water is wasteful and the money spent on it could be used more wisely.  Maybe it was all the articles reminding us that we have to work harder to protect water quality, even in the United States. 

It probably wasn’t because of this little known prediction: by 2030 two-thirds of the world will lack access to clean drinking water.  In light of all this, Back2Tap remains committed to donating 5% of our profits to help supply schools in need with clean water, through the Cental Asia Institute and to raising awareness about this issue.

It was amusing to watch two “good ole boys” bantering back and forth on national TV about a subject I know better than they do: bottled water.  Thankfully, O’Reilly and Stosser got most of it right – bottled water is a scam, and we should all be drinking tap water.   Unfortunately, Stosser couldn’t resist tossing in a few choice sound bites that over-simplified and polarized the bottled water issue.    

The interview concerned the new movie “Tapped: A call to Action” which is embarking on a 30 city tour starting on March 22, World Water Day, and concluding on April 22, Earth Day.  O’Reilly said he feels like he’s being scammed when he buys bottled water, and Stosser readily agreed that he is.  Stosser pointed out that the money could be spent for better purposes, especially since people prefer tap water in blind taste tests and since a large percentage of bottled water is tap water anyway.

Stossel disagreed with the movie’s claims about the hazards of the plastic bottles.  He’s right that the disposable bottles (#1 plastic or PET) that bottled water comes in isn’t likely to cause any health hazards.  But, bottled water can contain unhealthy levels of bacteria and other contaminants because it is not as well regulated as tap water; antimony can leach from the plastic if bottles are left in a hot car.  Experts believe that reusable aluminum bottles with BPA liners and bottles made out of polycarbonate may pose some of the health hazards mentioned in the movie.

Stossel claims bottled water is simply a waste of money, but not an environmental threat.  I would agree if there were only a few people were drinking it.  But when we are sending 140 million disposable plastic bottles to the dump every single day in the USA, it’s ridiculous to say that’s not a threat to the environment.  He claims we have enough landfill space.   Does that justify wasting our precious resources: 4 oz of oil and  51 oz of water for every 17 oz bottle of water and $12 billion in total each year?

In response to facts about plastic not decomposing in landfills, Stosser counters that paper doesn’t degrade well in landfills either.  Yes, and that is why you should get a BPA-free reusable container and fill it with tap water!   You’ll save money and reduce waste.

Stosser goes on to claim that drinking water supplies are not under threat and that more and more people will continue to get clean water as we prosper.  Actually, as we prosper, we put more pressure on our limited resources.   The prosperity in the 50s and 60s caused serious pollution of our surface waters – they had to be rescued by the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act of the 70s.   With population and industrial pollution increasing and enforcement of these laws becoming more lax, our drinking water quality is starting to go in the other direction.  This movie is not a rant by “silly lefties”, it is a call to arms for reasonable people.

The latest article in the Toxic Waters Series, “Rulings Restrict Clean Water Act, Foiling E.P. A.”, was published in the New York Times today.  This is stuff you really don’t want to know.  We all want to believe that current regulations protecting our water are adequate and that corporations wouldn’t dump pollutants that could harm our drinking water quality.  Unfortunately, neither is true.

There are an increasing number of Clean Water Act violations and at the same time fewer and fewer enforcement actions by the E.P.A.  The Clean Water Act has jurisdiction over all “navigable waters”, but the term was not clearly defined and it’s scope has been shrinking over the decades.  What we do know, is that pollution dumped into waterways does find its way into people’s drinking water via ground water migration and surface water movement.   Pollutants do not simply “stay put” nor do they just “disappear”. 

Congress needs to put aside its “Toxic Politics” and act to protect our drinking water from worsening levels of pollution.  Do we want to become solely reliant on ridiculously inefficient bottled water?  Tell your Senators and Representatives to support the Clean Water Restoration Act or you’ll vote them out in November!

On Saturday, I finally got a chance to see Tapped – a compelling documentary about the business of bottled water in the United States.   It was well worth my trek up to Mercer County Community College where Hackensack River Keeper was hosting the screening.  Not available for purchase yet, the movie is only available to groups willing to pay $175 and charge admission.   You can get a flavor for the movie by watching the 5 minute trailer.

I was most startled by the lack of regulation of bottled water.  Most bottled water (60-70%) is sold in-state and is therefore completely unregulated by any agency.    Bottled water that is transported across state lines is regulated by the FDA.  Do you know how many people at the FDA are devoted to this task?  Less than 1!  When the interviewer asked the poor woman, she admitted that she actually had other responsibilities, too!  WHAT? 

Another astonishing fact was that a 10 cent bottle deposit has increased the recycling rate of disposable plastic bottles to 97% in Michigan.   If plastic waste were the only problem posed by bottled water that would be a good solution.  

Tapped showed the impact of the bottled water industry on rural towns across America where ground water is being mined.  The arrogance of the multi-national corporations is disheartening.  In the face of local opposition, dropping water levels in wells and water bodies, and even during droughts,  they continue to pump water, bottle it, transport it, and sell it.

All those bottled water labels with pictures of pristine mountains portraying the product as pure and clean couldn’t be further from reality.  This eye-opening film is worth tracking down to see.  If you’re involved with any sort of environmental group, showing Tapped would be a great way to raise awareness and motivate supporters to drink tap water and a use a reusable bottle when on the go.

Aren’t you tired of being asked to buy wrapping paper, candy, popcorn, cookie dough, or magnets at your children’s schools? The offerings are often way overpriced, useless, or just plain bad tasting. Last fall, when I was trying to figure out what sort of environmental project to do at my son’s school, the PTO president complained to me about the girl scouts drinking bottled water at their meetings and how great it would be if they would use reusable bottles. It was like a lightening strike in my mind. YES! That is exactly what we need – reusable bottles for everyone! We convinced the PTO to sell stainless steel water bottles school-wide and make it a green fundraiser. Before it was all said and done, it was a town-wide school fundraiser, involving seven schools – the first one of its kind in town. We decided to price the bottles close to retail prices to keep them affordable and still generate some profit for the school. We ended up selling 1500 bottles to a school population of 3500 students and raising over $8000! This was truly something novel: we sold something useful and earth-friendly while raising money for the school. A win – win – win!

Bottled water has become so deeply entrenched in our society that some people can’t even imagine how to provide water at an event without it.  Say what?  Maybe I’m going to show my age here, but I actually remember living a good hydrated life, attending events, and even hosting events before anyone had thought of putting tap water in a disposable plastic bottle and charging 1000 times more for it!    Based on my experience BBW (before bottled water), I have come up with some ABCs for getting by without bottled water at your school with ease:  

water cooler

Access to tap water 

Provide access to drinking water throughout the school by maintaining water fountains and cleaning them daily.  Better yet, upgrade to bottle-less water coolers in the cafeteria and in hallways and install a water filter on the tap in the teachers’ lounge.  Offering chilled filtered tap water will allay concerns about the spreading of germs at the water fountains, taste of tap water, and water quality. 

Custom water bottles

Bottles that are reusable 

Request that students, teachers, parents, and other visitors to the school bring their own reusable bottles or mugs to school each day and to all special events. Consider having a reusable bottle fundraiser or simply issuing school water bottles to every student.  Custom water bottles with the school logo are a big hit with students.  Monies raised can be used to fund water coolers! 

Containers for serving 

Pitchers filled from the faucet or from water coolers can be used to serve tap water to students in their class rooms.  Large portable coolers filled with the help of a pitcher can be used to dispense tap water at large gatherings.  For those who forget their reusable bottles, it is important to have some biodegradable disposable cups on hand and a recycling bin to collect them. 

Pitcher

Portable cooler

Bottle free bliss

All in all, becoming a bottle free school is not as daunting as it sounds.  Life was good BBW!  Putting the ABCs in place is easier and cheaper than you’d expect.  The key to getting cooperation from the entire community will be establishing and communicating a school-wide bottled water policy and letting everyone know you’ve got the ABCs covered.

You’ll be glad you did because eliminating bottled water at your school will simplify planning and clean up for events, reduce the volume of waste, save parents money, model a sustainable lifestyle for students, as well as reap significant environmental benefits for everyone. 

This morning I found a bottled water cost calculator on the New American Dream website. It enables you to calculate how much money you waste buying bottled water in a year. It’s very simple to use. First, you input the number of 16oz bottles of water you drink in a year, then the price of your tap water per gallon, and finally your average bottled water cost.  If you don’t know your tap water cost, it’s safe to assume it’s around $0.002/gallon.

The results are startling!  If you drink one bottle of water per day and pay $1.50 for it each time, you are spending an extra $550 on water!  Even if you buy your bottled water very cheaply most of the time, you will still be wasting over $150 each year. The $10-15 investment in a high quality reusable bottle seems like a bargain by comparison! 

On top of the cost savings you will achieve by using a refillable bottle, there are obvious environmental benefits as well.  The calculator also estimates the impact of your bottled water habit on the planet.  For the one-bottle-a-day person, an extra 114 gallons of water, 37 megajoules of energy, and 9 gallons of oil will be wasted as well as 68 pounds of CO2 generated.

If you’d like to reduce your impact and fatten your wallet, check out Back2Tap for your best value in high quality refillable water bottles.

The Toxic Waters series continues to raise serious questions about water quality in the USA.  Elevating the issue to the forefront of the national news has lent momentum to EPA administrator Lisa Jackson’s stated commitment to improve drinking water quality standards and enforcement.   

I look at it as another call to action to protect our watersheds, lobby for enforcement of our existing clean water regulations, and support upgrades to our water and sewer infrastructure.  It matters what you throw on the ground, in the sewer, and on your lawn.  Whatever you put down could ultimately end up in your drinking water source and add to the cost of your water treatment.  We need to be willing to pay more for our tap water in order to assure that it’s clean.  It’ll still be a bargain at prices 100s of times cheaper than bottled water.  Let’s not give up and rely on bottled water which has already been shown to wasteful – that’s not a sustainable option.   And don’t forget that you don’t know what’s in bottled water either.

The good news is that 87% of the people in the USA have clean drinking water.   Links to find out about your own water quality and water filtration options are provided in the New York Times article, “Is Your Water Safe“.  The small percentage of people whose drinking water doesn’t consistently meet EPA standards should definitely consider home water filtration – it’s the greenest and most economical option.

“The bottled-water industry isn’t just seizing an opportunity — it is banking on the decline of our water infrastructure as key to their successful business model” according to an editorial by Patti Lynn.   Lynn further quotes Nestlé Waters North America CEO Kim Jeffery as saying “We believe the tap infrastructure in the U.S. will continue to decline. People will turn to filtration and bottled water for pure-water needs.”

Is this the handwriting on the wall?  I’m sure that the CEO of Nestle is a smart business person, and I’m afraid this might be a pretty safe bet in spite of the recent decline in bottled water consumption reported earlier this year.  Clearly, there is a lot more work for Back2Tap and other organizations like ours to do.  We will all need to do more than raise awareness and convert people to tap – we will also have to convince people to actively lobby for watershed protection and improvements to their water infrastructure.

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