Drinking Water From Plastic Bottles. Or Not.

Here is the news my world-wide readers have been waiting for. The winners of the 30th Annual Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting for 2020 are in! A panel of twelve judges sipped over 100 entrants at the competition. Believe it or not, the principal criterion for success was that the water should have no taste. Three of the top five winners in the Bottled Water category were Japanese. The best bottled water in the world is Hita no Homare Cosmo Water from Japan. Of course I am going to run right out and buy some. Or not.

A member of my household who shall remain nameless (I have been married to her for many years and I’m pretty sure she has a name) occasionally will bring home Fiji water in those cute little square bottles. I think Fiji water is refreshing. But then I saw that it is actually bottled on the island of Fiji, 7,726 miles from where I sit writing this. In order to get to a local grocery, Fiji water has to be shipped on ocean-going vessels that spew diesel smoke into the air and have to plow through an ocean of discarded plastic bottles just like the ones on board. To buy this stuff you’d have to be insane. I gently, respectfully, said just this to my beloved. What happened next is the interesting part.

Tyler-Mountain-Old-TruckWater is, of course, necessary for life. So when water comes to us in packages of any kind, I think we need to be a little more tolerant than when some non-necessity is presented to us in single use plastic bags. Water in small plastic bottles can be just the thing when, for example, we are hiking away from a source of tap water. Water packaging has evolved into smaller, lighter containers. I grew up in Charleston, West Virginia and I can remember Tyler Mountain Water Company delivery trucks rolling through town with enormous green glass bottles on the back. This company is still going strong, mostly because in 1972 it began to package water in 8 oz. plastic bottles that are sold to coal companies for worker consumption.

Nevertheless, the bottled water industry is under assault, and with some justification. Part of this has to do with the source of the water. Water taken from natural springs or wells in unspoiled rural areas has big value from a marketing standpoint. What’s more, U.S. bottled water sales are enormous, reaching 14 billion gallons in 2017. Environmentalists worry that extraction of natural ground water from pristine mountain areas can lower the water table and deplete cold freshwater streams. The Washington state Senate recently passed a bill that would block new permits for taking water from natural sources. Similar measures are on tap in California.

Not all bottled water comes from natural springs and wells. One of the largest brands – Dasani – is a product of the Coca-Cola Company. It is bottled using “local water sources” that are subjected to a purification process called reverse osmosis. Then a special blend of minerals is added to give the water that “pure, crisp, fresh taste.” I guess Dasani is not interested in competing for the world title at Berkeley Springs. Dasani would not, however, trigger environmental opposition to tapping spring and well water as seen in Washington state. I noticed one other thing of interest on the Dasani website. The company recommends that consumers discard unopened bottles after one year.

This Dasani shelf-life advice may simply be a quality concern. Or it may instead be a health concern. Dasani bottles contain no BPA and a new package called a Plant Bottle contains 30% plant material. Nevertheless, all plastic water bottles are suspected of shedding plastic micro-fibers and leaching chemicals into the water when stored at high temperatures. The bottled water industry denies this and argues that the studies raising this issue are not peer-reviewed and rest on unsound science. But the health implications of plastic water bottles bear watching.

Although plastic water bottles are fully recyclable, perhaps 40% are not recycled. The litter problem caused by plastic water bottles in national parks caused the Obama Administration to ban them from the parks in 2011. This ban was lifted by the Trump Administration in 2017. The Administration’s statement lifting the ban noted that the ban had removed from 23 parks the healthiest beverage choice while still allowing sales of bottled sweetened drinks. But “fairness” was probably not the true motivation. The ban was lifted only after the International Bottled Water Association spent hundreds of thousands of dollars lobbying for this result. But what happens with plastic bottles in the national parks is only a tiny fraction of the plastic litter problem created by these bottles.

So back to the domestic discussion of Fiji water with my beloved. No, I did not spend some quality time in the hospital. The result was that she stopped buying water in plastic bottles of any sort. This is a big change around here because I used to lug the 36-bottle cases into the house every week or so. We are using well water purified through a Brita filter. These filters can get clogged up pretty fast and have to be changed out, but the promotional material that accompanies them says that one filter replaces 300 standard 17 oz. water bottles. These filters reduce chlorine taste and eliminate zinc, copper, cadmium and mercury – but not lead. The Brita company will recycle the spent plastic filters.

There is no perfect solution to the water packaging problem. We as a nation are drinking more water in plastic bottles and are not likely to change. In the absence of a top-down prohibition on these bottles, maybe the best that can be hoped for is a re-engineering of their composition toward biodegradable materials, and an assurance in the meantime that plastic bottles have no unhealthful effects. Water filtering of well and tap water can also achieve a purity objective without any bottles at all. But don’t, whatever you do, even think about buying water bottled in Fiji or Japan.