James Werrell

I'll take my water straight out of the tap

Years ago, when my son was in middle school, the luncheon beverage of choice was bottled water.

Parents who loved their children and didn't want them to be subjected to ridicule by their peers for being out of step in their choice of fluids bought large supplies of bottled water each week for their children. Children would freeze the water so it would be nice and cool when the lunch hour rolled around. And when lunch was over, they would toss the empty bottle in the trash can.

At the time, I confess, I was less concerned about the ecological outrage of this practice than I was about what it was costing me in dollars and cents. I was dumfounded that we were going to the store and buying water.

If someone had told us in the 1970s that we could get in early on a huge money-making trend -- selling people bottled water -- we would have asked them to share what they were smoking. "Yeah, wow, man, maybe I can get rich selling air!"

The solution to the dilemma of my water-guzzling son was simple. I gave him an empty water bottle and told him to fill it up from the tap every morning before he went to school.

Little did I know that I was committing an act of environmental responsibility. And now, a decade later, the battle against the lunacy of bottled water has become a certified movement.

The more you learn, the crazier the idea of bottled water gets. One example: Last month, PepsiCo announced that it would begin labeling its Aquafina brand of bottled water with the initials "P.W.S." The letters stand for "public water source." In other words, the company is doing the same thing I made my son do -- filling plastic bottles from the tap -- only on a much larger scale.

Many people buy bottled water because they think it is purer than what comes out of their taps. But in many cases, bottled water has been found to have more contaminants than tap water. Why? Because it is not subject to the same purity standards as tap water.

And it's expensive. Bottled water can cost $2 to $4 a gallon, as high or higher than a gallon of gas. By contrast, $3 will buy you about 2,000 gallons of municipal tap water.

Last year, consumers worldwide spent $50 billion on bottled water. Of that, Americans shelled out $16 billion, more than any other nation.

The environmental costs, however, may be even higher. For example, Americans used about 40 billion plastic water bottles last year. Only about a quarter of them were recycled, and the rest ended up in landfills.

Production of plastic bottles also uses more than 1.5 million barrels of petroleum each year. And millions more gallons of fossil fuel are used to ship bottled water from factories to stores around the nation.

Ironically, bottled water also may be depleting local water supplies around the world. Municipalities sell local water to bottlers, which then is shipped out of the area to serve customers hundreds of miles away.

Springs and underground aquifers have been pumped dry in some places. In the worst cases, bottlers use up water that poor communities need for drinking, hygiene and irrigation.

The arguments for bottled water? It's convenient. And it is one of many bottled beverage choices that use water, such as soft drinks and beer. The difference, however, is that you can't get a Coke or a beer from the tap.

On the bright side, some bottled water companies have redesigned bottles to reduce the use of raw materials. One company is promoting eco-friendly reusable aluminum bottles. And Nalgene, a producer of reusable beverage containers, has teamed with Brita, which manufacturers home water filters, to promote the use of filtered tap water in a personal bottle.

I have another idea that might catch fire and make me a billionaire. I'm thinking of calling it a drinking fountain.