Disturbing message comes in bottles

By ANGELA TREADAWAY / For the Reporter

Sleek, chic and costly – make that extremely costly – in ways that many consumers scarcely imagine, writes Charles Fishman in an article on the bottled water industry on FastCompany.com.

As recently as the late 1970s, virtually no one could have predicted the U.S. bottle boom. Last year, we spent more on bottled water than movie tickets – a staggering $15 billion.

We pay up to four times more, Fishman observes, for a product we can get for free from the kitchen faucet than we do for gasoline.

The trend certainly raises environmental issues as Americans went through about 50 billion plastic water bottles last year. But it’s the long-term implications for public drinking water that concerns many water quality experts.

Dr. Jim Hairston, the Alabama Cooperative Extension System’s water quality coordinator and Auburn University professor, fears the U.S. consumer’s passion for bottled water is diverting public attention away from one of the most pressing infrastructural crises in the nation today.

Americans, Hairston says, are not investing enough money in the nation’s public drinking water and waste-water facilities, and until they do, these facilities will continue to creak under the strain, if not crumble apart.

Much of the investment needed to upgrade these facilities must be passed on to consumers in the form of higher drinking water costs. But given the growing preference for bottled over tap water, he fears most consumers will be unwilling to foot the bill.

The result could be the loss of safe, affordable public drinking water, something Hairston says is one of the nation’s most significant scientific achievements of the last century.

Aside from that, the whole bottled water phenomenon is ironic. Our tap water is just as safe, or safer, than the majority of bottled water products. But that is not the case everywhere.

In Fiji, for example, a factory churns out a million bottles of one of the “hippest” varieties on the U.S. market amidst a population that does not have safe, reliable drinking water.

Think about this: It’s easier for Americans in Beverly Hills or Baltimore to get “safe, pure, refreshing Fiji water” than most people in Fiji.

Angela Treadaway is a Regional Extension Agent serving Shelby County. She can be reached by phone at 410-3696