Water

Want to Be Sustainable? Ditch the Bottled Water

Bottled water has become so ubiquitous that even a notable critic of bottled water found one on his podium at a recent lecture at Columbia University.

Last month I attended a talk by Dr. Peter Gleick at the Columbia Water Center at Columbia University. Gleick’s talk, "The World’s Water Crisis – Peak Water and Moving To A Sustainable World," was especially interesting given the many water crises we’re facing here in the United States. Gleick is one of the World’s most outspoken critics of bottled water (and author of a book on the subject due out this spring) yet, there on his table sat a bottle of Poland Springs water, standard fare for guest lecturers.  What better symbol of how, in just a very short time, bottled water has become insidiously ubiquitous in our lives.

Noticing the bottle at one point, Gleick stopped speaking, picked it up and, gazing at the object in his hand, said, "No, I’m not going to comment on this." A few moments later, though, he reconsidered, and told us the story of Maine’s famous Poland Spring, which has been depleted by bottling operations. Yet, ultimately, with no other water in sight, the speaker had little choice but to open the bottle and drink.

I’d like to hold Columbia University totally responsible for this bit of mindless hosting.  After all, if Columbia’s event planners had done their homework, they would have filled a pitcher with New York City tap water and given Dr. Gleick a glass.  Besides, if Columbia didn’t buy the water then the bottling company would go out of business, right? Nah, I just can’t let the bottling companies off the hook that easily.  I mean, how did we get to a point where we are even having this discussion?  Many of us remember a time, not that long ago, when we’d never seen a single-serving sized bottle of water for sale anywhere in the United States.  Now they’re found at every event, grocery store, gas station and vending machine.

In many places, water fountains have been disabled or removed from service, making bottled water an almost mandatory purchase if you find yourself in need without access to tap water.  Still, many times we have a clear choice but we’ve been so manipulated into believing that bottled water is cleaner or better for you than tap water (it almost never is) that we end up making the expensive and environmentally-unsustainable choice of bottled water.

You might think that the single bottle of water you’re about to purchase or throw away doesn’t amount to much but you’d be wrong.  When you consider the cumulative effects on the environment, not to mention the diminishing support for municipal water infrastructure caused by that single purchase, you realize that it really does have a huge environmental impact.

Many municipalities and college campuses across the country and the world have taken a pledge to get their communities back on tap. If Columbia University wants a chance to raise its failing grade, it should take that same pledge. For extra credit, it could check out Free Your Event From Bottled Water. If the University really wants to go for an A++ they should take an inventory of their water fountains, repair any that aren’t working and install additional fountains to encourage their faculty, staff and students to use the tap.  In doing this, Columbia would take serious steps toward achieving the water sustainability Gleick spoke of within Columbia’s own hallowed halls.

Robin Madel is a research associate at GRACE.
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