Suppose there were a simple way to save from a few to a few hundred dollars a year, and to leave the Earth a better place for your children. Well, there is. This week’s lifestyle tip should surprise none of you who know what I do for a living. But I’m going to say it anyway. In non-emergency situations, it’s time to stop buying bottled water.
Let’s leave aside disposable coffee cups, gas-powered leaf blowers and stores that leave the doors open while the air conditioning is on full blast. Can we please talk about the world’s bottled water problem?
Yes, the area where I live is under a heat dome. So is most of the rest of the nation. Talking about staying hydrated is timely, and nobody’s perfect. On a muggy June day, having set a personal best in a half marathon but several hundred yards away from my family, I accepted and drank a free bottle of water at the finish line. I probably haven’t bought one of these in a decade, and I usually go out of my way to avoid even the free ones. But I was thirsty. It tasted okay but could have been colder.
The environmental cost
Last year, the average American used 167 disposable water bottles but only recycled 38. Put another way, Americans use 50 billion disposable water bottles a year and recycle 12 billion of those. That’s 38 billion water bottles in streets, streams and landfills. Recycling is great, but it’s more like downcycling when plastic is involved. It takes energy too.
Meanwhile, only 10 states have bottle-deposit laws. Of these, six don’t cover bottled water because it’s a product that didn’t exist when those laws were written. And regardless of what happens to the bottles once they’re used, it takes some 17 million barrels of oil a year to make them. That’s a million cars’ worth!
The bottled water industry, which wasn’t an industry at all until several decades ago, will insist it’s better that customers are buying water instead of sugary drinks. Fair enough. But what if they passed up the vending machines or concession stands altogether?
The financial cost
Consider air travel. You can’t bring a full water bottle through security anymore. But staying hydrated on your flight is always a good idea. So you have to make arrangements after you get through the checkpoint.
I had two flights home from Michigan in the past few weeks. The first was from the smallish Gerald R. Ford International in Grand Rapids. This airport had drinking fountains with nifty Elkay bottle refillers right next to a display of bottled water for sale. The second flight was from Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County International. Do you know that I walked the entire length of the North Terminal looking for a drinking fountain? I finally realized that they’re tucked away, without signage, in side corridors next to the family restrooms. Meanwhile, every restaurant and newsstand in that terminal had big displays of Aquafina for sale. I can’t imagine how many thousands of dollars a year DTW passengers waste by buying bottled water to take on the plane, only to throw away or possibly recycle the bottle at their destination.
Bottled water can cost hundreds, if not thousands of times more than what comes out of your tap. It’s a shocking difference. And that doesn’t even include all of the places away from home where you can fill up a bottle for free. They won’t advertise it because it’s bad for business, but many major sports stadiums and concert venues will let you bring in an empty reusable bottle and fill it up. Even movie theaters have drinking fountains. Why spend $1 to $8 for something you can get for free?
Dining out? Stick to water, and don’t buy it. You could spend $2.50 for a sugary soft drink or a bottle of water, but why? Tap water is free in every restaurant, even if you have to ask for it in some places. And in quick-service restaurants where you fill your own drink, look for the little water button on the soda fountain. Sometimes it’s not easy to find, but it’s usually there. If you’re lucky, another small button nearby will dispense free carbonated water.
Tap water is good water
The nation’s water utilities collectively spend billions of dollars a year making tap water clean, safe and affordable for us. True, there are notable and tragic exceptions. But those of us who live in the United States are among the world’s most fortunate when it comes to tap water. Visit a developing country sometime, where access to drinking water is in question because of pollution or lack of infrastructure, and you’ll see what I mean. Meanwhile, the more we get used to the idea of drinking water as something that comes out of a bottle, the less attention we pay to our aging water systems.
Your water utility must send you an annual report on what exactly is in your tap water, and is subject to numerous strict federal regulations under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Bottled water companies don’t have to do this, even though many of them are simply filtering and bottling tap water anyway. Don’t assume it’s safe just because it comes out of a bottle. And if you want to be extra careful, get your home tap water tested. Buy a point-of-use filter if you like, because these can make tap water even cleaner and better-tasting. You’ll still be ahead of the game financially and environmentally.
How to ditch the bottle
A small, up-front investment in a decent reusable water bottle is all it takes to beat the scourge of bottled water. Lindy and I like Sigg and Kleen Kanteen for the grown-ups and Contigo for the kid, all easy to handle and dishwasher-safe. I usually just use my Zojirushi vacuum bottle when I travel, so I can go for either coffee or water depending on what I need.
If you like the bubbles, and I do too, take a tip from my mother-in-law. You can skip all those expensive bottles of Perrier and cans of La Croix by buying a SodaStream for your house. You’ll recoup your initial investment in no time. In the few weeks since we got ours (in red), we’ve been drinking even more water than usual.
Start saving money and leaving a lighter footprint today.