Save the environment or save the economy? The brewing battle over bottled water could kill jobs

For more than a few years environmentalists have fueled a movement to ban or significantly reduce consumer use of bottled water. Dozens of universities and municipalities have already taken action to curb bottle water use.

But the impact of such a ban on the U.S. economy, especially in the current economic climate, could be significant.

“It could be massively destructive for the industry,” said Tom Lauria, spokesman for the International Bottled Water Association.

More than 150,000 jobs in the water bottle industry could be at risk, and billions of dollars of exports of polyethylene terephthalate, a primary ingredient used to produce water bottles, could also be at risk.

The National Association for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR) said 1.4 billion pounds of PET were collected for recycling in 2009. Of that, 780 million pounds was exported, mainly to China, which purchased 726 million pounds of PET.

Kate Eagles, NAPCOR’s communications director said, “Valuable plastic material gets used in domestic products in China; it’s not waste and it’s not garbage and that sometimes gets glossed over.”

Eagles added, “They [China] have a huge appetite for recycled plastic. They have a huge population and they don’t have a lot of natural resources.”

Translation: China is paying U.S. companies more than $7 billion to recycle our waste.

Marc Ross, spokesman for The U.S. China Business Council said waste and scrap are among the top five exports to China and represent 10 percent of a $90 billion export market, a market touted by President Obama in his State of the Union speech on January 26.

Despite their protests, environmentalists admit that the industry is thriving.

U.S. consumers bought 8.7 billion gallons of bottled water in 2008 and that dropped only a percent to 8.5 billion in 2009. The drop has been largely blamed on the recession.

IWBA’s Lauria says new data for 2010 will show water bottle sales leaped more than four percent last year.

“Tap water has always had issues,” Lauria said. Bottled water has been the preferred drinking water for almost 150 years.

“Ox carts used to pull wooden oak casks of water in New Amsterdam,” Lauria said.  “By the 1870s, bottled water was a big deal…and the advent of chlorinated tap water wasn’t the end of bottled water.”

Janet Larsen, the Earth Policy Institute’s director of research said, “The bottled water industry has been very successful at eroding people’s confidence [in tap water].”

Larsen said her first target is consumers that buy large cases of bottled water at the supermarket.

“Once people realize they’ve been misled into buying water bottles with nice mountains, and people find out that particular brand is just tap water…people will feel duped,” Larsen said.  “[They’ll ask] ‘Why am I drinking water from halfway around the world’,” she added.

Larsen concedes there have been numerous findings about municipalities with contaminated water supplies. Such communities often rely on the water bottle industry to supply reliable safe drinking water.

Larsen said her goal is to work with consumers and local governments “to restore people’s confidence in tap water through education, and restore funding to improve water infrastructure.”