This article was originally published in Teton Valley News on October 4, 2012. It is reposted with permission.
Once upon a time, I left my rural hometown and set out to explore the world. I lived and worked overseas for six years as a student, a teacher, and a research scientist before the economic downturn brought an abrupt end to my adventures. I returned to my homeland looking forward to becoming a part of a community, exploring the vast wilderness of the American West, and drinking tap water. Most Americans take drinkable tap water for granted, but I sorely missed it when there was no middle ground between purchasing bottled water and a trip to the hospital. I grew weary of the expense, the waste produced, and the hassle of using bottled water to brush my teeth.
Although tap water in almost every corner the United States is safe to drink, fear over the safety of tap water has led Americans to consume over 50 billion bottles of water a year. In reality, utilities test tap water hundreds of times a year according to federal and state guidelines, while bottling plants self test as infrequently as four times a year. Some brands of bottled water have levels of arsenic, carcinogenic compounds, and other contaminants that exceed state or industry standards, and one-third of all bottled water in the United States is merely filtered tap water. While bottled water is a healthier option than sugary sodas, there is no guarantee that it is safer or healthier than tap water.
An unpleasant side effect of the popularity of bottled water is the waste it produces. The production of plastic water bottles consumes 17 million barrels of oil annually. That’s enough to run one million cars for a year! After consumption, only 20% of plastic water bottles are recycled. While Teton County reduces waste by collecting plastic bottles for recycling, it still takes energy to produce, ship, and recycle bottles. Recycling is good, but reducing waste at the source is always better.
Finally, bottled water has negative impacts on small, rural communities. Bottled water companies extract large quantities of water from localized sources and ship it across the globe. Residents, particularly farmers, can be left with less of a resource they desperately need. Reduced stream flows can lead to stagnant water, increasing the spread of invasive weeds and impacting local fisheries. Furthermore, once a community loses confidence in the public water supply, it becomes difficult for municipalities to invest in the infrastructure needed to keep tap water clean. The middle class and poor are disproportionately affected when systems fail and they have no option but to purchase bottled water at 1000 times the cost of tap water.
Teton Valley is blessed with clean, drinkable tap water. For pennies a year, we can drink from the faucet without fear, without creating unnecessary waste, and without impacting the communities where water is bottled. By choosing tap, you support one of the greatest American freedoms, our public water system.
Tanya Anderson is the Executive Director of Teton Valley Community Recycling. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org, watch “The Story of Bottled Water” with Annie Leonard, or read “Bottlemania” by Elizabeth Royte.
I should recycle more. I use myself a reusable bottle and I advice all my friends to do so.