The Problem with Bottled Water

May 1, 2014, Department, by Richard J. Dolesh

The Green Team in Washoe County, Nevada, installed hydration stations with educational messages in two county buildings and is looking to install additional stations in parks and libraries.Bottled water in parks — it’s so convenient to have handy. It provides an easily portable method of hydration for park visitors when there is no potable water supply available. It’s much healthier for people to drink water instead of sugar-laden soft drinks. Bottled water solves all kinds of problems when it comes to supplying safe, healthy drinking water to park users. What’s not to like about bottled drinking water? Plenty, according to a collection of national conservation and health organizations. 

So, Just What Is the Problem?

First, putting drinking water into disposable plastic bottles consumes an enormous amount of energy to produce, package and transport. The energy consumed is estimated to be the equivalent of more than 17 million barrels of oil annually. The Riverkeeper, a national conservation organization based in New York, compares the energy needed to transport, chill and collect empty disposable bottles to be equivalent to filling each bottle one-quarter full of oil. Second, the production of disposable plastic water bottles uses nearly 3 million tons of PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic per year. 

But wait, there’s more. While the bottles are touted as being fully recyclable, more than 85 percent of empty plastic water bottles end up in landfills, or worse, are incinerated, releasing toxic chemicals into the air. Discarded disposable water bottles are the unwelcome byproduct of bottled water, and our parks, streets and rivers become the recipient of a large percentage of these disposable bottles, causing environmental impacts to natural resources and unsightly public spaces. 

The vast majority of bottled water is considered safe, but there are some nagging questions raised about the health implications of bottled water. A study by the Natural Resources Defense Council found some samples of 103 bottled water brands tested violated strict state water-quality standards for chemical or bacterial contamination. More recently, a concern has grown about the presence of phthalates, a suspected endocrine disrupter found in the plastic of water bottles. Some believe that pthalates might leach into the drinking water.

There Is an Alternative

Proponents of using public and municipal drinking water instead of bottled water note that the cost of producing safe, clean, public drinking water is far, far cheaper than bottled water, in many cases hundreds, if not thousands of times cheaper. Despite being a nation with some of the best public drinking water in the world, the U.S. produces nearly 29 billion disposable water bottles annually, more than any other country. Some advocates of reducing bottled water use have even raised the issue of social justice regarding bottled water. If the more affluent can afford and will buy bottled water in preference to tap water, they ask, what will happen to municipal public water systems that provide clean drinking water to underserved communities? Will public investment in keeping these systems in top-notch condition continue if the well-off switch to drinking primarily bottled water?

Despite such concerns, bottled water sales skyrocketed in recent years, growing at double-digit rates annually for more than a decade. Sales are continuing to grow in the the high single-digit percentages each year, and growth is expected to stay strong.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a national advocacy group, estimates that disposable bottles are the largest single source of trash in national parks and represent fully one-third of all trash that must be hauled away from parks. In 2011, the National Park Service dropped plans for a ban in Grand Canyon National Park, but subsequently adopted a servicewide policy that allows park superintendents to prohibit the sale of bottled water in specific national parks after a rigorous analysis and as long as a number of conditions are met. Fourteen national park units have now instituted bans, according to National Parks Traveler. 

Sustainable Parks Can Do More 

If there are acknowledged environmental, economic and even social impacts from disposable bottled water, many conservation-minded parks professionals ask if this is not an issue upon which agencies that are trying to “green” should be taking action. If we are trying to make our agencies more environmentally sustainable, to do more to make people healthy, and to show the public we are more socially responsible, there is a growing consensus that we need to come to grips with the problems surrounding the use of bottled water.

Looking at the big picture, it is difficult to reconcile a strong push for sustainability in parks without at least acknowledging that the ever-growing use of bottled water and the attendant problems it creates (trash, energy use, etc.) creates a disconnect with our vision of what makes sustainable parks.

While park and recreation agencies have generally not stepped up to address the issue, a number of public institutions are leading the way to reduce the proliferation of bottled water and restrict its sales. The Board of Supervisors of the City of San Francisco just approved a ban on all sales of bottled water on public property in March 2014, although they did allow some limited waiver provisions in the bill. Colleges and universities are on the forefront of public institutions that are restricting bottled water sales or adopting policies to reduce bottled water use. The picture for parks and recreation is not as clear.

A recent query to some park and recreation leaders indicated that most agencies recognize the growing use of bottled water in parks — and they are aware of the potential problems that such increased use is creating. However, few agencies have adopted policies to institute organizational change. Some agency directors pointed out the inherent difficulty of dealing with providing drinking water for events such as 5K and 10K races. They note that if you prohibit bottled water, you need to provide other sources of drinking water, and the disposable cups generate almost as much trash as disposable bottles.

Innovative Solutions Are Possible 

What is clear from responses from the field, however, is that virtually everyone queried agrees it is an issue that parks and recreation needs to tackle. While most agencies don’t have a formal policy yet, many are beginning public education on the subject, and they are looking for ways to provide drinking water in other ways than disposable bottles. A number of agencies are starting to retrofit indoor and outdoor drinking fountains with new water fountain designs or hydration stations that allow for the easy filling of reusable water bottles. All agree that public education should be a part of any effort to increase use of reusable water bottles.

Joel McKnight, deputy general services director of the City of El Paso, Texas, notes that they do not have a specific adopted policy about disposable water bottles since water fountains are not an automatic amenity in every park. They encourage people to bring their own hydration, and they are implementing some new approaches to recycling plastic disposable bottles. McKnight notes, “In all initiatives and attempts to change habits, there is compromise. In the agencies I have worked for, we have tried to educate on the need for healthier living habits and how they can be tied into a sustainable environment — like encouraging folks to refill their containers rather than dispose of them after one use.”

One company that has met the challenge of disposable water bottles in a creative way is CamelBak. Of course, an initiative to replace disposable bottles with reusable bottles is just good business sense for a company whose product lines include hydration packs and reusable water bottles, but CamelBak has gone above and beyond what might be considered just savvy business practice with their “Ditch Disposable” campaign, recently recognized as the Best Cause Campaign of the year at the 2013 Outdoor Industry Awards presented by Outdoor USA Magazine. 

 Begun almost five years ago to inform people about the benefits of using reusable water bottles, the Ditch Disposable campaign was expanded to music festivals, bike races and other large events. CamelBak provides hydration stations where festival or race goers can refill their water bottles for free, saving the cost of purchasing bottled water and eliminating disposable bottles. During the time this campaign has been up and running, CamelBak estimates they have reduced the use of more than one million disposable bottles. Associate Marketing Manager Beth Scott says, “It’s a good public service and it saves people money.” She notes a bottle of water at large events can cost $5 or even more. “Using a reusable bottle is a very simple way to make a positive impact on the environment,” Scott says.

The problem of bottled water in parks can be solved. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, and in fact, there will be times and places in which bottled water is the best solution to provide drinking water to park visitors. And there is no doubt that altering people’s habits will require incremental change and will proceed  best from a willingness by those affected to be more sustainable. Perhaps the most significant contribution that parks and recreation can make in taking up this challenge will be to educate the public — by word and example — that there is a way each and every one of us can make changes in our own lives that make a positive difference in our environment.

Richard J. Dolesh is NRPA’s Vice President of Conservation and Parks.