Sunday, January 16, 2011

Tapped, a look at the dangers of bottled water

That bottle of water you buy to quench thirst, that you chug down, then toss the bottle. Seems like an innocent act doesn't it? Do you understand the effects of that act? Do you realize that bottled water is more expensive than gasoline and is probably just municipal tap water?

The World Bank has estimated the value of the world water market at $800 billion, which has corporations salivating over their prospects if they can control the market for water. Traditionally water has been a free thing controlled by municipalities and at least in modern western countries municipal water has been very good, a success of modern technology, reduced the disease level which crippled prior generations of humanity, etc.

Tapped is one of many documentaries about water. It focuses on bottled water, and does an excellent job of covering the life cycle impact of that bottle of water. Watching this movie is a thought provoking experience that's likely to make you think a few times before buying your next bottle of water.

Commodities and corporate control of water

The first section of Tapped goes over the corporatization of water.

In the U.S. (and around the world) beverage companies are quietly buying up land and water rights, pumping water, bottling it, and selling it at huge profits. This creates conflict between public needs and corporate needs.

Local communities are sometimes up in arms because "their" water is being taken by these companies, leaving the local community high and dry. In some cases literally dry. The movie discusses several instances where the water bottling company kept on bottling water even during drought conditions when the local municipality was rationing water.

In some parts of the world the municipal water systems are being sold to corporations, with devastating effect. Tapped doesn't touch on this, and in fact this movie doesn't mention any other part of the world than the U.S. except to describe Nestle as a Swiss company.

The movie claims bottled water costs six cents a gallon to produce and bottle, and they charge us $6 a gallon to buy. It's price is 1900 times the cost of tap water, and we Americans buy 16 billion bottles of water a year. The issue is world-wide, however.

"There is enough water for human need, but not for human greed" - Mahatma Ghandi

Representative Kucinich is interviewed with a few choice things to say about the conflict of public need, and corporate greed. He claims that "Water is a basic human right" and that commodifying something as basic as water will lead to huge battles and problems.

Is bottled water healthy? Plastic made from oil?

Another large section of Tapped goes into some health effects of bottled water.

Primarily bottled water is sold in plastic bottles made of PET. PET is recyclable, but that's seeming to be its only redeeming value. PET, or Polyethylene terephthalate, is a thermoplastic polymer resin of the polyester family and is used in synthetic fibers, beverage, food and other liquid containers.

The makers of the movie claim that PET is made from Paraxylene, and spend a lot of time standing outside an oil refinery (Flint Hills) discussing the toxic disaster that oil refineries are. One would come away from this section thinking that the horrid side effects of oil refineries are purely attributable to plastic water bottles. In reality the plastic for water bottles is only one minor product coming from oil refineries, and the whole oil business is a horridly dirty and toxic thing.

In any case, plastic (not just for water bottles) tends to come from petrochemicals. That is, oil. PET is made from many chemicals, not just Paraxylene.

The purchase of plastic is one of the many ways we encourage oil companies to mine oil. If we stop buying plastic and stop other uses of oil, the oil companies will stop mining oil.

Buying plastic encourages mining oil, meaning plastic water bottles contribute to environmental degradation from the use of oil, and often oil industry environmental toxins harm our health. But, wait, that's not all.

Bottled water is not necessarily safe or clean.

Municipal water is tightly regulated by the EPA. Municipal water quality is measured many times a day, with reports publicly available on EPA websites. Productized bottled water is not regulated at all. Period. The agency which would regulate bottled water is the FDA, and they have only one person on the job. Part time.

It's starting to be understood that chemicals in the plastic leech into water. It's especially bad if the plastic gets heated. For example, left in a car trunk on a hot day.

This effect is true not just for water bottles, but any plastic container. What kind of container do YOU use to store left-overs? Do you nuke left-overs in the microwave? How many plastic chemicals go into your food when you do so?

It appears to not be well studied or understood, but Phthalates (Polyethylene terephthalate) easily leach out of plastics and are routinely found in human bodies. It's thought to be an endrocine disrupter and may be complicit in things like obesity.

Some water bottles (like the 5 gallon jugs) are made from Bisphenol A. In September 2010, Canada became the first country to declare BPA as a toxic substance. In the European Union and Canada BPA use is banned in baby bottles.

The movie shows congressional testimony where the FDA is made out to be a major villain covering up a major catastrophic problem about BPA. The FDA apparently only looks at industry scientific studies to determine safety, and has ignored studies from independent scientists, studies that have shown BPA to be incredibly dangerous.

Recycling and the islands of plastic in the ocean

Over the last few years, marine scientists have found great big garbage patches (gyres) floating in the oceans. Discarded plastic doesn't always get recycled. It's estimated that in the U.S. only 20% of water bottles are recycled, despite them being 100% recyclable. The bottles either end up in landfills, or incinerated, and some end up in the ocean.

Plastics in the ocean break down becoming shards of plastic, and the fish are swimming in a soup of plastic. What used to be oceans full of plankton are now filled with plastic, and that plastic is entering the food chain. There's already a risk that by 2050 there will be no fish left in the ocean, and this is one piece in the chain of causation. (see: Why is the world's biggest landfill in the Pacific Ocean? and 'Only 50 years left' for sea fish)

One highly successful program at encouraging recycling is the Container Deposit Systems (or Container Deposit Legislation). This is the fine print on bottles stating that, in certain states, the bottle will earn a five or ten cent fee because of a deposit paid by the manufacturer. This pays for the whole of the recycling system and results in high recycling rates, in states with the system. But the beverage companies fight container deposit legislation, because it costs them money.

Our right to protest

Do we have a right to protest the current state of affairs if we continue to buy bottled water?

The companies selling us this stuff continue doing so because we buy it. If we stop buying it, they'll stop making it. Right?

The laws governing access to water appear to be murky. For example the movie states that surface water (lakes, rivers, oceans) are a "public trust" while sub-surface water is not so carefully governed. In Maine they have a system of "absolute domain" which is described to mean that "he who has the biggest pump wins".

Water is a basic need for life. Humans quickly die without water, and water systems can easily spread disease. Modern water systems were a huge advance for public health. But today we risk corporations gaining control over this basic need.

The movie, Tapped, does a great job at opening ones eyes to the dangers outlined above.