My favorite surprise gift this past Christmas was an aluminum water bottle from my older brother, the family member I’d vote as “most likely to make fun of me for being an environmentalist.” After all, when I emailed the family my Christmas list with hopes of secondhand books and recycled running gear, he replied saying, “Please tell me you weren’t always this much of a hippie, what the crap is this?”

These immortal words preceded his gift of a shiny new aluminum water bottle, which replaced my recently retired but still beloved Nalgene. The newcomer’s apple-red enamel bears the words, “Tastes Great. Less Landfilling.” It also lists “Plastic Water Bottle Facts” nutrition-information-style on the bottle, which I have posted below for your edification and enjoyment, and which raise my ire re: some of the bottled water industry’s biggest problems. So drink up, me ‘earties, yo ho!

Plastic Water Bottle Facts
Average Serving Size 12 fl oz.
Servings Per Container: only, ever 1

Amount Per Bottle Production
Crude Oil … 3 fl oz.
Water Required … 3x bottle size

Total Bottles
Total plastic for bottles … 900,000 tons
Total CO2 produced … 2.5 million tons
Total oil used to produce … 17 million barrels
Total bottles not recycled … 80%
Percent of water from tap … 40%
Time to decompose … Up to 1,000 years

The most glaring and egregious points of contention these fun facts bring up for me are as follows:

  1. So few plastic water bottles, too often touted as “recyclable,” actually are recycled, which is a nod to the dismal availability of public recycling opportunities in mainstream America, among other things (PDF). The EPA reported that 2006 rates of recycling for plastic HDPE milk & water bottles hobbled up to 31 percent. The overall national recycling rate doesn’t look much better at a whopping 32 percent (2006).
  2. That whole “landfilling” thing: plastics make up at least 11 percent (by weight) of municipal solid waste landfills (PDF). That’s not even taking into consideration the plastics’ volume and light weight.
  3. A titanic 40 percent of that “pure spring water” Americans are chugging (and dropping a cool $15 billion/year on) is actually from the kitchen faucet. At least tap water is strictly and frequently tested for purity and safety, which leads to my next point.
  4. The other 60 percent of bottled water is pulled from uncharted, or at least untested, waters. According to a four-year study of bottled water by the NRDC, the FDA exempts “60-70 percent of the bottled water sold in the United States from the agency’s bottled water standards, because FDA says its rules do not apply to water packaged and sold within the same state.” Even when not exempt, the rules are usually weaker than EPA drinking water standards for tap water.
  5. Production of plastic water bottles requires three times the water the bottle will eventually hold. That’s not even getting into the 17 million barrels of oil or the 2.5 million tons of CO2 resulting from plastic bottle production.
  6. And finally, the bottled water industry is literally draining the Great Lakes, which hold 95 percent of the U.S.’s surface freshwater. Even a Sustainable Water Resources Agreement (PDF), signed by eight Great Lakes states’ governors and two Canadian provinces’ premiers, allows for the unlimited removal of Great Lakes Basin water “in any container of 5.7 gallons (20 litres) or less” (Applicable Use #9, Article 207).

To summarize, bottled water for people outside of national disaster areas or developing countries = bad. Reusable nonpolycarbonate water bottles = good. As for me, I’ll be slurping my tap water from my nifty new aluminum bottle, but only after I’ve run it through a filter. Just in case.