Bottled water debate: Don’t forget those without clean water

One thing that’s frequently missing from the bottled water debate is the admission that some people do need bottled water. All the arguments against bottled water are completely true and valid — anywhere from 25 to 40 percent of bottled water is just tap water; generally, it isn’t healthier than tap water; its production uses a lot of natural resources like oil; and it creates a lot of waste. But the first two are arguments of the privileged.

I am very vocal about my disdain for bottled water, and while visiting my dad one day, I let him know how I thought his crates and crates of bottled water were ridiculous. Then my step-sister told me that her and her husband also bought crates and crates of bottled water, but she added, “That’s because our water is yellow. I’d love to just drink it from the tap, but I don’t trust it.” She had a point — did I really expect her to drink yellow water for the sake of saving plastic?

According to a report in The New York Times, about one in 10 Americans has “been exposed to drinking water that contains dangerous chemicals or fails to meet a federal health benchmark in other ways,” and the U.N. estimates that 884 million people don’t have access to safe drinking water (that’s almost three times the population of the United States). For people without access to clean water, the arguments that bottled water is no safer than tap water or any other water are laughable — for people without access to clean water, bottled water is the safest bet possible.

For instance, as noted in the Times report, mountaintop removal mining and other mining related activities (e.g. acid mine drainage from abandoned mines) leave tap water orange or brown. Poor infrastructure leaves water open to contamination from aging, leaky pipes. Factories, landfills, and farms pollute the water either through runoff or just dumping toxins into water without regard to the Clean Water Act and how potent the toxins are.

We need to address these problems before the bottled water conversation, at least in the United States, can really gain speed and validity. There are likely many people, like my step-sister, who would gladly drink straight from the tap, but it just isn’t a safe and viable option, so the bottled water argument falls flat when opponents try to argue that it’s no healthier or safer than tap water — because for some, it really is.

This also means that the people who can afford bottled water need to remain part of the conversation about clean, safe water, not ignoring the problems because they can afford to ignore them. Mother Nature Network notes that:

Only the very affluent can afford to switch their water consumption to bottled sources. Once distanced from public systems, these consumers have little incentive to support bond issues and other methods of upgrading municipal water treatment.

Simply buying a Brita water filter and quitting bottled water is not the answer for everyone — for some people it is, but for others it’s about major infrastructure changes and environmental cleanup and regulations. By portraying bottled water as merely a dumb idea (e.g. just bottling and selling what’s coming out of your faucet) and implying bottled water drinkers are dumb, bottled water opponents are excluding and insulting the people whose only access to clean water is bottled water, which leaves their voices and the problems of water pollution unheard and unsolved.


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