Bottling Maine’s Environment

Posted: 23/03/2008 in Uncategorized
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22 March is the day the UN and its supporters celebrate “World Water Day,” a global event to call attention to the worlds precious water supply. Bottled water has become a huge industry across the globe, but just exactly how does the industry affect Maine, and why should we curb the practice of drinking bottled water? Curb the practice of drinking bottled water? Why? Isn’t bottled water supposed to be good for us? My thought exactly when I first read the headlines to a couple of articles in some of today’s papers.

The first one to catch my eye was a San Francisco based story relating how Gavin Newsom, the city’s mayor started a program to reduce the amount of battled water being consumed in the area. He started by shutting off the contracts for deliveries to the cities offices and other facilities, and pushed for restaurants to follow suit, and many have done so. Here on the east coast, the Boston Herald also ran a piece on how eateries are jumping on the bandwagon and eliminating bottled water from their menus. (continued below)

But why should they do that? There are some pros and cons to both sides of the bottled water story, and Maine has one of the nation’s leading industry groups bleeding the life from our environment. Can we afford to allow it to continue, or should we also jump on the bandwagon, and eliminate bottled water from our diet? Hmmm. What is this guy talking about, you ask.

Let’s take a gander at the pros of bottled water, first of all. What is it about bottled water that makes it so good for us? Well, let’s look at the calorie count. Oh wait, that’s right, water has no calories. And having no calories makes it the ultimate diet drink. No need to worry about packing pounds on like you would with a bottle of soda. I’ve got a 12 oz bottle of Pepsi® in front of me, and the labels reads that it has 150 calories. It also says it has 30mg of sodium, 41g of carbohydrates, 41g of sugars, and 0 fat or protein. A 12oz bottle of water would read 0 on all accounts, which means it is good for you to drink water.

Another plus to drinking bottled water is that harmful contaminants are filtered out, so you don’t have to worry about pollution in your belly from it. And then there is the hydrating factor involved in a long tall cool glass of H2O. But when you really think about it, a bottle of commercial water is really no better for you than tap water in most cases. Tap water is filtered the same as bottled water, and in fact, much of the water you see on any grocers shelf is actually bottled tap water. So why spend a couple of dollars on a bottle of water at a restaurant when tap is just as good? Why does the UN want to reduce bottled water consumption?

That’s where we get into the cons about bottled water. Being a global industry, there are a lot of players in the game, with a lot of power and wealth to be spread around. But all those plastic bottles have to come from someplace, and that is where the big issue comes from. Reduction of energy consumption in the form of oil. According to some experts, more than 17 million barrels of oil are used every year to produce the bottles used for the water.

Recycling, in theory, is supposed to reduce this consumption, but it doesn’t. The bottles do not actually get reused, which is what recycling should be about. You know the old saw, reduce, reuse, recycle. Instead, the bottles get crushed, chopped, shredded and reprocessed into other things made from plastics. In the old days of reuse, a glass bottle could be used hundreds of times unless it got broken. Do you remember the old Coke® bottles with the names of the cities it was bottled in on the bottom? Those bottles went right back to the plants for cleaning and refilling. Much more environmentally friendly.

But for more than 29 million plastic bottles a year, the fate is the chopper and grinder, increasing the amount of energy needed to process this plastic once again. The 17 million barrels of oil mentioned above are just to make the bottles in the first place. This figure doesn’t include the energy used for making the packing material, usually shrink wrap, transportation from the bottler to the end consumer, and then for the process to get the bottle through the recycling and remanufacture process. It makes sense to reduce the amount of bottled water we consume based just on the oil we could save every year alone.

But there is an even greater need to reduce the amount of bottled water we consume every year. And I’m willing to bet you’re probably standing on this reason even as you read this line. That reason is a declining aquifer or water supply. Maine has the advantage of being a prime destination for bottled water companies in that our aquifers can be tapped into for relatively low cost as compared in other states. Our water packed rolling hills and many lakes ponds and streams provide for those aquifers.

But when these aquifers are drained, Maine’s forest habitats become strained. When we encounter a period of drought, such as we had back in 1999, this stress can be devastating to a forest environment. In a report from 2006, Maine listed 32 bottled water plants around the state. And as usual, many of these are run by “people from away” who don’t really care about our best interests. Pumping water from the ground either through artesian wells, or drilled wells makes no difference. It’s water that’s not coming back. (continued below)

So why should that be a problem? It rains and snows a lot in Maine doesn’t it? Well, yes it does. But unfortunately, more than 50% of all that precipitation runs directly to the surface water supply. The rain fills the lakes, but not all of it percolates, or drains back into the aquifer to resupply its losses. When an aquifer loses enough of it holdings, surface areas called wetlands suffer because they lose territory. Trees and other foliage also suffer because they have to strain harder to get the water they need to survive. When the plants suffer, animals and birds that rely on them as a food source also suffer. And in turn, the animals that rely on these animals also suffer.

All too often, we keep referring to habitat as land, when in reality, habitat is not just land, but an entire environment. Life is a cyclical happening, and all things are connected in some way to each other. If we continue this trend of increasing consumption of bottled water, our aquifers will become drained, causing great stress upon all things connected to these environment areas. Tap water is just as safe, and in some cases, safer than bottled water. It makes much more sense to simply use a refillable bottle from the tap than it does to support the oil industry in a time where rising prices are at an all time high. One way we can reduce the price at the fuel pump is to cut back on the amount of plastic we consume. And a plus to reducing plastic in this way is that we can also reduce the strain placed upon our precious aquifers by these global bottled water companies.

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