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

Dipka Bhambhani Contributor
Font Size:

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.”

The Earth Policy Institute believes water is a public commodity that should not be privatized.

“Part of the movement is about bringing back the public source of water,” Larsen said.

Several investment giants have already purchased water companies which has essentially privatized tap water in some municipalities.

Still Larsen said, “The ultimate goal should be using reusable containers and filling water up at a faucet.”

That would eliminate the problem of waste, she said. Of the 29 billion 12-ounce bottles produced and sold each year, only about 23 percent are recycled, she said.

Lauria said a recycling problem is no reason to go after industry.

The bottled water industry association has created 20 videos on You Tube countering claims that demonize bottled water.

“The Environmental Protection Agency has calculated that bottled water containers make up one-third of one percent of the waste stream…If President Obama banned [bottled water] tomorrow, it wouldn’t make any difference to the landfill,” Lauria said.

“All of these groups going against bottled water are discouraging people from doing one of the healthiest things we do,” he said. “We scratch our heads a little bit here because there are thousands of food products packaged in plastic; it doesn’t begin with bottled water or end with bottled water.”

Already seven major U.S. universities have banned the sale of the bottles on campus and separately nearly 30 U.S. campuses have started campaigns to convince students to stop buying the bottles at campus dining halls and vending machines.

“It’s a movement that’s picked up a ton of speed in the past several years,” Larsen said. She said she receives “an email or two a week” from followers about how to ban bottled water in their communities.

“Unfortunately, even though tap water is more stringently regulated and monitored more than bottled water, we still have contamination problems in many U.S. cities,” Larsen said.  “The ideal solution would be to have clean tap water, delivered through municipal systems delivered directly to people’s homes and places of work.”

Nonetheless, in her most recent report, “Bottled Water Boycotts, 2007,” Larsen said bottled water is bad for the environment because it requires the crude oil equivalent to run three million U.S. cars for one year’s worth of bottle production.

Eliminating the 12-ounce standard water bottle from the consumer market for one year would save about 17 million barrels of crude a year that the water bottle industry uses for pumping, processing, refrigeration and delivery, she said.