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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.

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.

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. 


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. 

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.

The future of tap water is looking better all the time. After decades of continually eroding enforcement of the Clean Water Act, the EPA is pledging to turn the agency around.  Lisa Jackson, head of the EPA announced that the EPA has drawn up an action plan that includes better enforcement, better oversight of states, and more transparency and accountability.  While development of this plan began in July 2009, the Toxic Waters series in the New York Times has certainly galvanized the public and congressional leaders in support of this effort.

This is fantastic news for anyone concerned about the quality of our drinking water. The last thing we want to do is end up relying on bottled water for drinking. While only a small percentage of households on public water systems receive water from systems that have experienced health-based violations, it is unacceptable that anyone in the USA should have unsafe tap water come out of their faucets at home on any occasion.

A soccer player with one of our bottles

Did you know that Americans each drank an average of 218 bottles of water in 2007? bottles – 66 billion, in fact! Only 23% of them are recycled so on a daily basis, a staggering 140 million disposable plastic bottles go to landfills in the USA. That’s enough, laid end to end, to reach from New Jersey to China and back every day.

It doesn’t take an engineering degree to understand that this is a problem. It is extremely wasteful. To begin with, finite natural resources like water and oil are being consumed in the manufacturing of bottled water. It takes 4 ounces of oil and 51 ounces of water to make one 17 ounce bottle of water! Then after their use, 50 billion disposable plastic water bottles are dumped in landfills each year where they will take over 700 years to decompose.

There is a simple solution to this problem. Drink tap water instead of bottled water and use a reusable bottle when you are on-the-go. Even if you filter and flavor your tap water, you will save money because bottled water is 1000 times more expensive than tap water. There are many reusable bottles on the market today. For a high performance, high quality water bottle, try a stainless steel bottle from Back2Tap.

If you are following the series on Toxic Waters by Charles Duhigg in the New York Times, his latest article is more encouraging.  A recent EPA news release says that the EPA is going to undertake a re-evaluation of its previous rulings on atrazine.  This could lead to stricter regulations, ie. lower acceptable levels allowed in our tap water.   Ah, this is what I was saying could happen if the issue was raised!  I’m not sure if there is any connection between peoples reaction to the Toxic Water series and this EPA decision, but it certainly gives you reason to believe the EPA is listening.  

When the Patriots Path Council called to invite Back2Tap to their Jamboree celebrating 100 years of Boy Scouts, I didn’t really know what to expect. Preparing for the “jambo,” I began to wonder whether any boys would visit a table presenting the evils of bottled water when they could be spear throwing, mountain boarding, bullwhip cracking, or watching an army tank run over a car.

In spite of having about 175 cool activities to choose from, a couple hundred of the 4300 scouts and leaders did find time to spend at the Back2Tap table this past Saturday. Every single boy and leader listened intently, asked questions, and seemed genuinely excited about our campaign for getting back to drinking tap water and using reusable bottles. This was definitely the best crowd I’ve ever worked with as an exhibitor. I also learned a lot – from the challenges of having private well water to the best type of carabiner.

Interestingly, even these outdoorsy community-minded folks who had reusable bottles clipped to their belts weren’t familiar with the astounding facts about bottled water waste. Many of them told us that if people knew about the:

• 140 million disposable bottles going to landfills everyday,
• 700 years it takes for plastic to decompose,
• 4 ounces of oil it takes to make each disposable bottle,
• 1000 times greater cost of bottled water, and
• more stringent regulatory oversight of tap water compared to bottled water,

jambo 005

they would be persuaded to drink tap water from reusable bottles instead of bottled water. Most people just don’t know about the hidden costs of their consumer choices. To illustrate these impacts, we had a sequencing activity where scouts put the 18 steps in the Life Cycle of a Disposable Plastic Water Bottle in order (see photo). Impacts on the environment were obvious at many steps in the Life Cycle. Before leaving, they were also able to take our Bottled Water IQ Test to see how much they had learned.

Obviously, there is a lot more work to do getting these facts and concepts out to people. Most of the scouts and scout leaders left our exhibit table eager to spread the Back2Tap message with the rest of their troop and with their communities. This is exactly the type of help the Back2Tap movement needs because it is not a message that large multi-national corporations with large advertising budgets is going to sponsor. It will take community leaders like scouts, teachers, PTO members, municipal volunteers, and green activists spreading the word, community by community. To find out how to help foster the Back2Tap movement, visit our community page.

Congratulations to the Patriots Path Council and the participating scout troops for organizing such an exciting and inspiring event. It was an honor to meet and talk with so many of you – thank you for sharing your opinions and suggestions with Back2Tap.

You can keep it simple and cheap.  Forget all the powders, potions, and bottles of expensive sports drinks for your kids.  Just send your children off to school and sports with plain old tap water in reusable stainless steel water bottles.  According to Phys Ed: Are Sports Drinks Actually Good for Kids?, unless children will be exercising vigorously for more than 90 minutes, water is better for them.   And outside of exercise, sports drinks are not a good choice – they are just expensive sugar water.

Most sports drinks don’t even come close to replacing the electrolytes you lose when you sweat a lot,  so they aren’t doing what you think they are doing.  If they had enough salt in them, you wouldn’t want to drink them!

For older children (10-12 and up) who are exercising  hard for more than 90 minutes, dehydration is a concern and sports drinks are appropriate.  Studies have shown that young athletes do drink significantly more water when it is flavored and almost twice as much when it contains electrolytes and carbohydrates, like a sports drink.

If you want to be green and frugal, check out this DIY sports drink recipe made with your very own tap water from “Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook,” 4th Edition:

Sports drink recipe from “Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook”
1/4 cup sugar (or stevia powder to be really healthy!)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup orange juice
1/4 cup hot water
2 tablespoons lemon juice
3 1/2 cups cold water

In a quart pitcher, dissolve the sugar and salt in the hot water. Add the remaining ingredients and the cold water. The drink contains about 50 calories and 110 mg of sodium per 8 ounces, approximately the same as for most sports drinks (unless you substituted stevia powder for the sugar).

So be green, be frugal, and be healthy, fill your reusable bottles with tap water, flavored if serious exercise awaits!

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