Saturday, February 23, 2008

Why I am giving up bottled water for Lent

A "Scholars Speak" article I wrote:

I do not drink tap water. In fact, in the last few years I really can’t recall drinking tap water (except in the most extreme exigency) at all. We own a water cooler and have five-gallon carboys of water delivered to our house. We also have a water cooler at work. On the rare occasions that I have forgotten to bring my water bottle to fill up, I have bought a bottle from the vending machines on campus. (At over a dollar a pop, you don’t want to do this very often.)

I am not an extreme germophobe or even very paranoid—since I don’t really drink soda or juice, I drink a lot of water, and I just don’t like the taste of tap water. And evidently I am not alone. Go to any supermarket and you will see an entire aisle of bottled water choices, all with enticing brand names. (My favorite is “Smart Water”—if only it really worked!) We have been convinced by the manufacturers of these products that bottled water will make us healthier, stronger, even smarter (although two of the major brands are nothing more than purified tap water). Trendy restaurants even have water sommeliers to advise us on the correct choice to complement our meal. This craze can be seen at its most sublime (or ridiculous) extent in “Bling H2O,” which comes in a frosted bottle decorated with Swarovski crystals. Price: around $35-50.

As we become a nation of bottled water drinkers, however, this habit becomes problematic in several ways. First, and most obvious, is the problem of the empties. Since a lot of bottled water is consumed away from home, not every empty plastic bottle makes its way to the recycling bin, even in California, one of the few states to include plastic water bottles in its bottle bill. In fact, according to the Container Recycling Institute, 86 percent of these end up as garbage or litter. When these plastics are incinerated, they release toxic chemicals such as chlorine gas. Second, the manufacture of plastic bottles uses crude oil. I drive a hybrid, not a luxury sedan or an SUV, because I feel it is a better choice for the world. Shouldn’t I operate under the same philosophy with regard to the water I drink? Shipping exotic bottles of water thousands of miles from their point of origin (Fiji, for example, or Finland or New Zealand) to the United States uses huge amounts of fossil fuels. Even more ironic: many of the empty bottles are shipped off to be recycled to foreign countries such as China, using even more petroleum.

When I think about this habit in the context of my faith, however, another problem arises. At the end of a recent church function, a veritable mountain of empty plastic bottles filled two large bags. Used once, their contents swiftly drained, they now were on their way to the recycling bin. I couldn’t help thinking about the money. Why, when we had perfectly good, free tap water, were we, as a church, buying bottled water, with all its costs (obvious and hidden)? It is, in fact, quite literally conspicuous consumption. Jesus teaches us by example to be frugal: after feeding thousands with the loaves and fishes, he instructs his disciples to go around and pick up the leftovers. When so much of the world struggles on a daily basis to obtain drinking water of any quality, our use of these products only reinforces the gap between us and our poorer brothers and sisters: if this trend continues, if only those who cannot afford bottled water are forced to drink from the tap, will there be the same impetus to guard the safety of public drinking water?

At the end of the classic film Casablanca, Inspector Renault dumps his ubiquitous bottle of Vichy water into the trash as a symbol of his newly found patriotism. This season of Lent, I am trying to put my principles where my mouth is: I am drinking… (gritting my teeth) tap water. Each time I fill my 20-oz bottle with tap water, I’ll put a quarter into a jar. At the end of Lent, the money will be sent off to the Episcopal Relief and Development Fund. And each time I’ll think about how lucky I am to live in a country where clean, safe water is just a turn of the tap away.


FranIAm said...

What a great post!

This is something that has been on my mind and heart much of late.

When I was living in downstate NY, where tasty tapwater flowed freely, I hardly drank bottled water.

And my office was in NYC- home of one of the consistently best rated tap waters in the world. That is no joke. Why drink bottled water?

However, now that I am living in the farthest reaches of Smalbania(Albany NY) and our tap water tastes like chemical-ish crap, I have been troubled.

My compromise has been to buy large bottles of Saratoga water or Poland Spring.

My rationale is that the larger bottles won't mean recycling 22,000 little bottles every week. Also Saratoga water comes from 20 miles away, so less footprint. Poland Spring is further, but still closer than say... Fiji.

The idea that water gets bottled and put on a plane from France or Fiji blows my mind. That sounds so judgmental, but when I learned of the impact of the transport alone, I stopped buying those waters.

You make such excellent and such human points here and I thank you.

Brian R said...

I will be all virtuous. the only time
I have knowingly drunk bottle water is when I have been in Asia. I cannot see the point and certainly would not spend my money on what is virtually free, I drink gallons of the stuff at home but when in Europe or USA or even different regions of Australia I am a bit more careful because I know different waters can cause problems even if properly treated.

Lindy said...

My solution has been to put a filter on my tap. I really don't trust the government. But, sometimes I am not sure I trust the filter either. This probably says more about my own paranoia than it does about water.

I too have been appalled to see the proliferation of designer waters. Just goes to show you that there really is a sucker born every minute. I am trying to be less of one.

Padre Mickey said...

I don't drink water at all because fish er, well, uh, do it in water, at least according to W. C. Fields.

If that reason was good enough for him, it's good enough for me.

Grandmère Mimi said...

Aghaveagh, that is an interesting penance. I drink bottled water, too, although the tap water actually tastes better. Our bayou, the source of our drinking water, gets its water from the Mississippi River, where God only knows what is dumped in it, not to speak of the runoff from farms and cattle raising and pig raising, chemical plants, etc., etc., etc. In other words it is rotgut. Treated, filtered, no matter, I don't trust it.

I wanted to thank you for posting my recipe for red beans. I don't cook from a recipe, but I was looking for the recipe the other day, thinking I had saved it on my computer. What I had saved was your poem on my red beans and rice, which I got a kick out of reading again.

To make a long story shorter, I began Googling for my recipe, because I knew it had been posted somewhere, but I couldn't remember where. I found it on your blog through Google. Google is a friend. I didn't have to start from scratch writing it out again. Yay!

Aghaveagh said...


Thank you for your kind comments! I appreciate your input. I do think that measures such as using large bottles or carboys instead of small will make a difference.

Brian R,

Funny you mentioning Asia--I'll be traveling to Vietnam in May and I will be very interested to see what the water sitch is there. So Aussie water is pretty potable?

Hmmm...Padre, so all you drink is cerveza and Jameson's??


Happy to be of service. And as the Padre would say, I loves me the red beans and rice!

Brian R said...

To be very scientific about this. My teeth are dreadful, more fillings than teeth. This happened in the 50's. By the 70's most states in Australia began adding fluoride to the water. As a result I know people in their 30's who have never had a filling. This did not happen in Queensland where tooth decay remained high. The news is that tooth decay is increasing in children today as their parents give them "pure" bottled water.

Padre Mickey said...

Hmmm...Padre, so all you drink is cerveza and Jameson's??

No, I drink rum and I drink coffee, too.

Caminante said...

We gave up bottled water at clergy day because we have our meetings in a town whose aquapher has been drawn dry by a commercial water bottling plant. I've discovered that simply leaving the tap water in a bottle in the fridge a day or two takes out the awful taste. Otherwise, there's always the Brita filtering system.

I filtered all my water the year I lived in a rectory that was on the edge of an abandoned gravel pit. Even the cats got filtered water!

The one time I do drink bottled water is in El Salvador. Even the locals do.

Good luck.

Alcibiades said...

We now live virtually next door to what was once one of the largest 19th century railway workshops in the world, and while above-ground has been largely redeveloped, the soil itself still appears pretty toxic. From the colour of what flows out of our taps it seems the plumbing infrastructure also remains untouched - so we've shifted to bottled water in an attempt to avoid heavy-metal poisoning.

Most places in Oz are fine however, and in many rural parts the "town water" is supplemented by tanks of rainwater collected from the roof.

And in southern NZ, however, the tapwater is sweeter than French Champagne ;-)

Diane said...

I have been having trouble getting around the blogs lately, finally I am here. I don't really drink bottled water. I have on occasion, but not at all lately. Our tap water is famous for being good. I do like the idea Lindy had of the filter. I share your concerns about the bottles.

My husband likes fizzy water.

Steve Hayes said...

Coca Cola is bottled water with additives.

One pays for the added flavour. Paying that price for no added flavour is crazy.