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Big Water vs. the National Parks: The Fight Against Bottled Water Goes Federal

Major corporations are fighting the National Park Service’s efforts to ban the sale of bottled water in national parks.

(Photo: Crushed Water Bottle via Shutterstock)

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In mid-December, Congress passed a provision within a $1.8 trillion budget bill requiring the National Park Service to file a report justifying a ban on selling bottled water at a number of parks around the country. Meanwhile, the bottled water industry promoted a rider in the appropriations bill prohibiting use of federal funds to support banning bottled water in national parks. So far, over 20 parks have gone bottled-water-free, including the Grand Canyon, Canyonlands, Zion and Bryce Canyon, and Fort Sumter National Monument. This is another development in the ongoing fight between the National Park Service and Big Water over banning bottled water.

Earlier this December, more than 30 members of Congress signed a letter to National Park Service director Jonathan Jarvis opposing Big Water’s effort to sabotage the bottled water ban. “As Members of Congress concerned with the preservation of our National Parks,” the letter read, “we support the National Park Service in increasing the availability of public water and adopting bottled water free policies on National Park premises.”

Several big-name corporations bottle water: Nestlé owns Arrowhead, Pepsi bottles Aquafina, and Coca-Cola bottles Dasani.

“When institutions go bottled-water-free, it’s always coupled with increasing access to tap water.”

The International Bottled Water Association (IBWA), a trade association of bottled water companies, then released a statement commending Congress for requiring the National Park Service “to provide the facts about how it justifies banning the sale of bottled water in America’s national parks.” The group also claimed, “In addition to being the healthiest package beverage consumers can choose, bottled water has the smallest environmental footprint of any package beverage.”

This past July, a study published in the American Journal of Public Health, entitled “The Unintended Consequences of Changes in Beverage Options and the Removal of Bottled Water on a University Campus,” looked at the impact of a bottled water ban at the University of Vermont. The study concludes that “[t]he bottled water ban did not reduce the number of bottles entering the waste stream from the university campus, the ultimate goal of the ban. With the removal of bottled water, consumers increased their consumption of less healthy bottled beverages.” Big Water – and even the right-wing college newspaper The College Fix – pounced on the study to confirm its position against bottled water bans. The IBWA said the study “has confirmed the International Bottled Water Association’s (IBWA) position that efforts to ban or restrict the sale of bottled can lead to increased consumption of less healthy beverages and plastic waste.”

However, Corporate Accountability International, a nonprofit organization focused on challenging corporate abuse, argued that the “design of the study was too limited to draw real conclusions about any consequences – unintended or not – of the bottled-water-free policy at UVM.” On top of that, they point out that the study’s authors make causal claims that are not backed up by the study. There are correlations, such as the increase in students consuming sugary beverages after the bottled water ban. But the study’s data does not provide enough information to prove that the ban led to students buying more sugary beverages. In addition, UVM had a 30 percent healthy beverage ratio policy – all campus locations selling bottled beverages needed to provide at least 30 percent “healthy” beverages – which was enacted in August 2012: five months prior to the bottled water ban implemented in January 2013. Corporate Accountability International pointed out that the study’s authors “provide no explanation or interpretation of the fact that there was an increase in sugary beverage consumption after that policy was enacted – before the bottled-water-free policy was put into place.”

There is another reason to question the authors’ and Big Water’s argument that banning bottled water leads to increased consumption of sugary, unhealthy bottled beverages: Such an argument presumes that those are the only two choices that exist. If a school bans bottled water but does not install more water fountains to compensate, and continues to sell sugary beverages, then it seems probable that people will drink more Pepsi, Coke and similar beverages. It is less about the ban but more about the choices presented. In a national park, it is rare to see vending machines selling Pepsi, Dr. Pepper or Mountain Dew along a trail. It would not make any sense, especially since such drinks lead to more, rather than less, dehydration. So, in that situation, banning bottled water would likely not lead to an increase in consumption of sugary beverages.

Lauren DeRusha, senior national campaign organizer with Corporate Accountability International, told Truthout that parks that go bottled-water-free “are increasing access to tap water. So any place where there used to be access to bottled water, now there’s access to tap water.” Parks also undergo a long feasibility process before they ban bottled water.

Over 80 percent of plastic water bottles end up in landfills every year.

“If you think about [it], you’re going hiking, in the Grand Canyon. Are you going to take a liter of Coca-Cola with you in your pack to stay hydrated on the trail?” DeRusha asked. “No. You need to have access to water.” As a result, more people visiting parks that ban bottled water are bringing their own bottles and filling them at the designated water stations. That trend has played out in other places where bottled water has been banned, as well. “What we’re actually doing, when institutions go bottled-water-free – it’s always, always coupled with increasing access to tap water,” DeRusha said. Thus, the framing of bottled water versus sugary beverages is a false choice.

Several parks have gone bottled-water-free largely because of the waste that bottled water produces. For example, Grand Canyon National Park banned the sale of bottled water in 2012, and then installed designated water refilling stations. The park claimed – before the ban was instated – that “disposable plastic water bottles comprise an estimated 20% of Grand Canyon’s waste stream and 30% of the park’s recyclables.”

Plastic water bottles have serious environmental impacts. Shawn Norton, National Park Service branch chief of sustainable operations and climate change, explained, “Americans discard approximately 50 billion plastic water bottles each year. Producing that number of water bottles consumes approximately 20 billion barrels of oil and generates more than 25 million tons of greenhouse gases.” Plastic bags and bottles are the most common form of pollution in oceans and on beaches. On average, each square mile of ocean is littered with over 46,000 pieces of plastic. Of the nearly 100 million tons of plastic produced every year, 10 million tons end up in the ocean – the majority (80 percent) coming from land. Most plastic bottles are not recycled. Over 80 percent of plastic water bottles end up in landfills every year. Plastic water bottles are not biodegradable. Instead, they photodegrade, meaning they break up into tiny fragments over time, sometimes taking a year or more. This kind of decomposition requires exposure to sunlight, which is very rare for plastic bottles in landfills.

DeRusha explained that Big Water has been waging a long campaign to make the public distrust tap water in order to sell bottled water. She said Big Water has spent “millions of dollars in misleading marketing to make us distrust our public water infrastructure. And they’ve also undermined the political will to invest in our infrastructure.”

Because many in the public are told – and believe – that tap water is bad, people are more willing to buy bottled water under the impression that it’s cleaner and safer, thereby giving more money and power to the bottled water industry. This also gives a private industry greater control over a public resource. As a result, DeRusha said, “We are not as focused as we need to be, as a country, on reinvesting in our public water infrastructure so that we can always rely on having clean, safe tap water.”

Bottled water companies use misleading labels to convince people that their water is pure, clean and healthy. For example, they’ll use an image of a pristine spring or mountain on their bottle labels. But much of the water provided by Big Water isn’t drawn directly from the pristine ends of the earth.

Bottled water generally comes from two sources. The first is spring water, where water flows naturally to the earth’s surface from an underground aquifer. About 55 percent of bottled water comes from spring water. The rest comes from a municipal water supply, i.e. tap water. That means 45 percent of bottled water is basically treated tap water. Aquafina and Dasani are from tap water. DeRusha said that this is “particularly ironic, given how much the bottled water industry tries to undermine people’s faith in tap water. But then they’re bottling tap water and selling it back to us at thousands of times the price.” On top of that, four bottled water companies – Arrowhead, Crystal Geyser, Aquafina and Dasani – get their water from California, which is experiencing its worst drought in history.

The process of producing bottled water is wasteful and detrimental to the environment. Water bottles are made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic. PET is produced from fossil fuels, usually oil and natural gas, according to the Pacific Institute, a global think tank focused on water issues. The production process also uses excess amounts of water. In 2006, the Pacific Institute estimated that it takes three liters of water to produce one liter of bottled water. That’s because “[i]n addition to the water sold in plastic bottles … twice as much water is used in the production process,” according to a Pacific Institute fact sheet.

In 2006, Americans bought 31.2 billion liters of water in bottles, requiring nearly 900,000 tons of PET plastic. As the Pacific Institute states, “it takes around 3.4 megajoules of energy to make a typical one-liter plastic bottle, cap, and packaging. Making enough plastic to bottle 31.2 billion liters of water required more than 106 billion megajoules of energy. Because a barrel of oil contains around 6,000 megajoules, the Pacific Institute estimates that the equivalent of more than 17 million barrels of oil were needed to produce these plastic bottles.” On top of that, manufacturing one ton of PET produces nearly three tons of carbon dioxide.

In addition to the resources that go into producing bottled water, the transportation of it also consumes ample energy. The Pacific Institute explains, “More energy is needed to fill the bottles with water at the factory, move it by truck, train, ship, or air freight to the user, cool it in grocery stores or home refrigerators, and recover, recycle, or throw away the empty bottles.”

Despite the widespread perception that tap water is dirty or contaminated, the reality is that US tap water is some of the safest and cleanest to drink on the planet. Mother Nature Network points out that US tap water is “generally safe from the microbes and chemicals that have plagued humans’ water supplies for millennia. While much of the planet relies on paltry, polluted drinking water, Americans can fill a glass without fear of cryptosporidium, chromium or chlordane.” This is thanks to the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 that gives the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) power to limit certain contaminants in tap water. DeRusha said that if the tap water is not safe in an area, the EPA will usually alert the community. If there is no notification from the EPA, the water is mostly safe to drink.

However, that does not mean that US tap water systems are completely free from risk. In 2009, the EPA warned that while tap water is generally safe to drink, “threats to drinking water are increasing,” such as short-term disease outbreaks and large droughts. These demonstrate, according to the EPA, “that we can no longer take our drinking water for granted.” A 2003 Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) study of 19 US cities found that pollution and old, deteriorating plumbing in tap water systems deliver drinking water that is potentially unhealthy for some residents.

According to the NRDC, “Many cities around the country rely on pre-World War I-era water delivery systems and treatment technology. Aging pipes can break, leach contaminants into the water they carry and breed bacteria – all potential prescriptions for illness. And old-fashioned water treatment – built to filter out particles in the water and kill some parasites and bacteria – generally fails to remove 21st-century contaminants like pesticides, industrial chemicals and arsenic.” Contaminants include lead, which “can cause brain damage in infants and children”; pathogens (germs), which make people sick, particularly people with weak immune systems, “the frail elderly and the very young”; arsenic, “which may cause cancer, serious skin problems, birth defects and reproductive problems”; by-products of chlorine treatment that “may cause cancer and reproductive problems”; and radon or other toxic chemicals. These contaminants can get into tap water in numerous ways: runoff from overflowing sewage systems after a heavy storm; “runoff from contaminant-laden sites like roads, pesticide and fertilizer-rich farms and lawns, and mining sites”; waste from animal feedlots; and industrial pollution that seeps into groundwater or surface water.

But DeRusha says that these risks to tap water systems underscore the need for investing in public water infrastructure and strengthening safety oversight, rather than funneling resources into bottled water. “The answer, in those cases, is not to turn to the bottled water industry for fear that something could happen in the future but to really get to the root of that issue and say, ‘What mechanisms can we put in place to hold these polluting industries accountable?’ so that we can still rely on having our safe tap water,” she said.

Despite any risks present in tap water, bottled water is not safer or healthier. In fact, tap water is subject to tougher safety standards than bottled water. Bottled water is regulated as a “packaged food” by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), while tap water is regulated by the EPA, which has more stringent regulations than the FDA. So when it comes to health and safety, people are probably better off drinking tap water.

National parks are not the only places banning bottled water. Schools and other institutions are going bottled-water-free. Considering bottled water’s impact on the environment and its lack of health benefits, more institutions may move in this direction – unless the industry’s misinformation campaigns win over the public.

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