Stopping the Madness! Do you ever buy bottled water?


Nov 11, 2007

Specialty coffee has long struggled to be a good environmental citizen, notwithstanding the advent of the Solo Traveler cup and lid. One reason is that the industry over time has become uncomfortably connected to a broad range of disposable paper products, items that are likely to end up in landfills and sometimes as litter. It seems as long as customers demand the convenience, cafes continue to supply them with paper cups, plastic lids, and wooden stir sticks, while offering reusable alternatives when possible.However, this state of affairs doesn’t sit well with many cafe owners and their environmentally attuned staffs. They fret and fuss, feeling the measures they’ve taken are not really good enough, especially if so many customers find it impractical to adopt the greener solutions offered. Finding a better way remains one of specialty coffee’s greatest challenges and frustrations. The impetus, especially on the Third Wave side of specialty coffee, where enlightened mindsets roam the earth, is to acknowledge reality, to be aware, and do the right thing. It is never to hide or deny–or just let it slide. This is one of the characteristics I especially love about many of the individuals in our industry. The intentions are well-placed, so improvement is bound to follow.Recently, the San Francisco Chronicle reported on a phenomenon that should be of interest to the environmentally-minded players in our industry (and the rest of humanity, for that matter). This is the so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The Garbage Patch is a “stewy” shape shifting mass of plastic and marine debris that floats about a thousand miles west of California and a thousand miles north of Hawaii.The Garbage Patch is virtually invisible to orbiting satellites because it is made up of approximately 80% plastic bottles and other buoyant, but translucent materials.To witness this spectacle firsthand, you must travel from Los Angeles for about a week due west by sea. You will then find yourself at the edge of an alien seascape twice the size of Texas, afloat with bottles and detritus of various sizes and shapes that you will probably recognize from your local grocery store shelves. This sea of debris is both broad and deep, extending from the surface of the ocean to a depth of about three hundred feet. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is currently taking precise readings on the exact size, depth, and density of the Patch. One thing is absolutely certain–the Garbage Patch is now a permanent feature of the ocean, kept in place by the continuous action of a clockwise trade wind known as the Pacific Gyre, which also collects even more debris ensuring the accumulation continues to build.We are feeding this growing ecological disaster by the small choices we make each day. One of the most significant ways we do this is by choosing to consume water as a packaged single-serve product. By making this choice, we have grown the bottled water industry from almost nothing thirty years ago to a $16 billion mega-business today, dominated by Pepsico and the Coca-Cola corporation. Our purchases of bottled water ensure the Great Pacific Garbage Patch continues to expand with additional new waste materials.In the United States the choice to drink bottled water is especially ironic. For one thing, the US has the most robust and highly regulated infrastructure in the world for supplying fresh, potable water through municipal water systems. And almost everyone has access to this supply. All municipal water systems in the US supplying more than 25 people are subject to the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, a stringent set of standards that go beyond the FDA and EPA requirements, which must also be met. In fact, the public water supply system in the US is so good that a large percentage of the bottled water you buy is filled from this system. The Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that 25% of all bottled water is really just “tap water in a bottle”, sometimes treated sometimes not.Here are some other facts to consider with respect to the magnitude of the bottled water problem:• 41 billion gallons of bottled water are consumed annually worldwide.• 7 billion gallons of bottled water are consumed in the US per year.• 2.7 million tons of PET plastic (made from crude oil) is used to meet worldwide bottling needs.• 1.5 million barrels of oil are consumed in manufacturing the plastic water bottles required to meet US needs.• 86% of plastic bottles in the US become garbage or litter (they are not reused or recycled).• Bottled water costs as much as $9.78 per gallon, versus fractions of a cent when water is drawn from municipal sources.The International Bottled Water Association (IBWA) acknowledges these issues. It makes a reasonable argument that bottled water is a much healthier alternative for individuals than soft drinks or other sugar-laden bottled beverage options. While this ignores the environmental costs, most people would probably agree that avoiding sugary drinks is a good thing. However, unlike carbonated beverages, clean water is piped to virtually every home and office in the US–so in this case we do have another choice: a reusable bottle.Refilling a bottle with water instead of buying a new one is guaranteed to stem the tide of garbage that reaches the center of the Pacific Ocean and chokes it at its core. Could a choice be any simpler and more effective than this? Probably not.Please spread the word!Eric Perkunder


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