Bottled water is an emotionally charged subject. It is almost daily that you see an article or a blog against plastic water bottles, or just bottled water in general. Despite the criticism, the bottled water sales have been steadily increasing and they show no sign of stopping. Why? With the rising awareness about how our activities affect the environment, are those buying bottled water just ignorant people that don’t give a hoot about this world? Or is it more complicated than that?
This article is for those trying to live clean and positive lives, but sometimes find it challenging, hearing so much negative press about almost everything we do. We drive cars, take birth control pills or anti-depressants that pollute our water, buy vegetables fertilized with chemicals, eat popcorn from genetically modified corn in a movie theatre, use sunscreens that protect our kids but kill corals, use perfumes, body products and cleaning supplies full of dangerous chemicals, fly on airplanes, order take-outs, pour chemicals into our drains to get a quick fix when our shower gets plugged, wear diamond engagement rings, drink Italian wine that has to be shipped to us. I could go on and on… All these have one thing in common: you can find something “wrong” with each one of them. It is mind-boggling.
Plastic is everywhere you look. In your shoes, on your table, in your clothing, any everyday object you can think of. It is estimated that worldwide we produce over 300 million tons of plastic every year, and around 480 billion PET bottles a year. The PET plastic is made from oil by-products that would otherwise be burned as waste. An average weight of a plastic bottle is around 26 grams. That means that around 12.5 million tons of PET bottles are produced each year, which represents around 4% of all plastic. If a half of this number represents soft drinks (my estimate based on the consumption), then 2% of all plastic manufactured is attributed to bottled water. PET bottles are the most recycled plastic in the world. In the US, the plastic bottles account for less than 0.3% of all waste (I could not find statistic for Canada). There have been studies showing that bottled water has the lightest environmental footprint of all packaged beverages. Despite these studies and numbers, why media and activists focus so much on bottled water?
The main reason is that bottled water is perceived by many as an unnecessary wasteful indulgence. It is much harder to avoid driving a car when you have to drop three kids at school every day, but you can easily refill a reusable water bottle. As someone said, “we have a free, clean water source standing by in our faucets. Your real alternative to packaged water is a refillable bottle and good old tap water.” As this writer, other critics of bottled water and proponents of banning it all-together often make one major assumption: we all have unlimited access to free, safe and healthy water at all times. Tap water is relatively cheap, and in many places it is relatively safe. As to “healthy”, I learned through a personal experience.
My story started growing up in a country rich in mineral and spring water: pristine water literally poured out of the ground. After I moved to Canada, I took water for granted and did not think of it too much. I put a lot of effort into healthy nutrition and clean products for my kids. However, when my first-born was about 6 or 7 years old, I noticed large white spots on his new adult front teeth. The dentist that I saw at the time told me that it was called dental fluorosis caused by the lack of fluoride and there is not much I can do about it. After doing some research, I realized that the opposite was true: dental fluorosis is caused by the excess fluoride, not lack of it. Given that I was not using fluoridated toothpaste, I did not understand why. Until I figured out that it can be caused by fluoride in the water. Wait, what? There is fluoride in my water? I had no idea. My son was breastfed, but he did drink a lot of tap water starting at 6 months. I never gave him fruit juices and he drunk very little milk. I thought I was making healthy choices by avoiding sugary drinks, but apparently, tap water was not that healthy after all.
After this, I dug deeper into tap water. I read about unintended and inevitable byproducts of disinfection that are present in tap water and considered harmful (chloroform, dibromochloromethane and bromoform are probably carcinogenic and dichlorobromomethane, dichloroacetonitrile and chloral hydrates are possibly carcinogenic), about an extremely dangerous pesticide called atrazine (banned in Europe for 15 years) that is still used in Canada and makes it into Toronto tap water, about the risks of excess fluoride, about lead that keeps showing up in the school water fountains and houses around Toronto, about frustrated communities on boil water advisory; about metabolites from anti-depressants and contraceptions that are eliminated through urine and make it into our water supply…
I also did some calculations – I took an average weight of a 3 month old baby, the recommended amount of formula she needs to eat, levels of fluoride in tap water as tested by the city of Toronto, maximum allowable amount of fluoride for that size of baby, and guess what? An average baby on formula that is mixed with tap water (boiled or not) could easily get much more fluoride than is recommended as safe. And I am not even talking about other chemicals. Yes, they tell us that tap water is safe and all the chemicals are within safe limits, but is it healthy? How do you know how much water my child, my dog or I drink, what sizes we are and how sensitive I am to any particular chemical? Also, with poisons like atrazine, many scientists believe there is no safe limit. Why are dangerous chemicals like atrazine in my water in the first place?
One thing that became obvious to me was this – since we consume in pounds roughly as much water as solid food, when focusing on healthy diet, ignoring the quality of water we drink makes absolutely no sense. That was my mistake with healthy eating and lifestyle. I was buying organic veggies to reduce my kids’ exposure to pesticides and chemicals but then gave them tap water containing atrazine… My son was later diagnosed with ADHD and Aspergers. He is a wonderful boy, but it is not a simple life. I don’t know where these conditions came from, and at this point it seems to be anybody’s guess. But could it be from some chemicals? I don’t know and I am not trying to scare anyone, we could drive ourselves crazy with all the dangers we are exposed to every day. I still occasionally drink tap water when I have no other choice. However, that’s the whole point: the choices.
I next looked into my choices. A common Brita filter or the boiling of tap water does not remove most of the dangerous chemicals. The boiling actually concentrates some of them. So I started to buy reverse osmosis water in bulk at Whole Foods, mainly for cooking. Eventually, I had a reverse osmosis system installed at my house. However, reverse osmosis is quite expensive and takes all minerals out of water, even the beneficial ones (same as distilled water). So, it is not the best choice for daily drinking. Then, I noticed how my bath smelled of chlorine, and after I tested it, I discovered I had as much chlorine in my tap as is required for the city public pools. A lot of chemicals absorb through the skin, so I had a de-chlorinator unit installed at my house. Now my kids can take a cleaner bath. Then I looked for good drinking water. There are some on the market. In the midst of cheap bottled tap water and processed/filtered waters, there are also some real spring and mineral waters like Evian, Fiji or San Pelegrino Not that many though. I also noticed that people often didn’t understand the differences between various types of bottled water, so they lump them all together and decide on the basis of price or taste.
Little by little, this research culminated into deciding to quit my job as a tax lawyer and starting a water company that focuses on education and providing people, in particular moms like me, with more choices. Every water on the planet is unique and has its own combination of minerals and electrolytes, along with other properties we don’t even appreciate. Saying that the only water we should drink is the tap water because it is free and same as any other water is so very wrong. It’s like telling all mothers they should not breastfeed and should only use one type of low quality freely distributed formula. Sounds like what our moms were told in the 60s.
Hearing about plastic pollution from the news, I was going to use only glass bottles. That is, until I realized that that was not the optimal choice in all situations. My first line of waters was for pregnant and breastfeeding moms, kids and athletes. From the liability perspective and just being a mom myself, I could not package water for kids and moms that are around babies in glass. I had to make a business decision. I looked at other options: bio-degradable plastic that can release methane and might not be completely stable at all temperatures. Then the paper containers; as good as they sound, they are only 75% paper; the rest of the package contains aluminum and polyethylene. Not all municipalities recycle these cartons, and it did not seem that much of an improvement from plastic bottles. After long deliberation and weighing my options, I was left with plastic bottles for my first line on waters. I decided to use BPA free containers that use 20-40% less material than traditional soda bottles, look for smart ways to recycle and search for partnerships in which I could give the plastic bottles the second chance by creating other products. I also keep looking for better options and hopefully in the future will be able to change the Luvita and Zivi packaging to something amazing.
I am not defending plastic bottles or making excuses for using them. I truly hope that because of the increasing demand for bottled water, researchers will figure out environmentally friendly packaging options that startups like mine can happily embrace. However, out of all plastics we use daily and all our environmentally unfriendly activities we engage in, does our focus on bottled water truly make sense? In my research I came across some eye opening data. There has been studies that showed that where bottled water is not available, more than 50% of people would chose pop instead. When you look at the gains bottled water has made in sales, it comes at the expense of soft drinks. So what are we actually doing by focusing our criticism and our bans on bottled water? Is it possible that people would consume more unhealthy beverages if they did not have access to bottled water? It seems that banning and attacking bottled water does not provide adequate solutions that many activists seek. They do not decrease the plastic pollution, but remove one of the most healthy beverage choices in favour of more unhealthy choices that will end up in the landfills anyway.
The bottom line is this: what we are willing to give up in our daily lives and what is absolutely not negotiable is for each one of us to decide. For you, it might be the car you absolutely need to drop your kids off to school every day, even if it contributes to air pollution, or the hormone pill you decide to take, even if it gets into our water and affects other people. As for me, I buy almost exclusively organic and natural foods, drive an electric car, look for pasture-fed dairy, get milk directly from a farmer, avoid MSG, artificial flavours and colours and high fructose corn syrup, get cosmetics with no parabens and fragrances, buy only environmentally friendly cleaning supplies, don’t drink any soda, avoid fast food, breastfed each of my three children for two years, and do not take any meds. I am far from complacent about our health or environment. I use discernment, do my own research and do not take as gospel everything I hear in the media. I started a company that sells bottled water because after looking at it from all sides, one thing that is non-negotiable for me is this: I believe people need to be educated about what is in their water and need more options to chose from when deciding what to drink.