Friday, July 27, 2007

The oil in your water

They actually ship this shit from Fiji.
Flickr photo by strfireblue.
The latest issue of Fast Company has a staggeringly good article about the bottled water fad. The article opens with a tour of the Poland Spring bottling plant in Hollis (just 2 miles away from my alma mater, Bonny Eagle High School), stops by Beverly Hills for some celebrity hype, and winds up in Fiji: the global travel itinerary of a twenty-first century commodity.

Last year, we Americans spent $15 billion on a consumable that most of us can get for free from a tap (in fact, 1/4 of the bottled water market consists of repackaged tap water from municipal sources: Poland Spring, for instance, buys some of its water from the Fryeburg, Maine town water supply). Article author Charles Fishman admits that, compared to indulgences like driving a Hummer, bottled water doesn't seem all that lavish...
"But when a whole industry grows up around supplying us with something we don't need--when a whole industry is built on the packaging and the presentation--it's worth asking how that happened, and what the impact is. And if you do ask, if you trace both the water and the business back to where they came from, you find a story more complicated, more bemusing, and ultimately more sobering than the bottles we tote everywhere suggest."
The resulting article is a natural history of bottled water: an expedition to the various sources of history's most bizarre watershed. What Fishman finds in this article is astounding: 38 billion plastic bottles pitched into landfills every year - an amount of plastic that would be worth $1 billion as a raw recycled commodity - the weekly transport of 1 billion filled bottles moving around by ship, trucks, and trains in the US alone - the equivalent of 37,800 18-wheelers burning lots of diesel fuel in order to duplicate a service already provided by pipes and wells - and finally, the modern bottling plant that produces Fiji Water, in a nation where unsafe water supplies generate regular outbreaks of illnesses like typhoid.

The plasticshed: sources of PET in the Amcor multinational tributary
Most fascinating is the big role of filthy fossil fuels in the production and transport of your pure spring water. For one thing, there's a whole lot of plastic produced. Most water comes in PET #1 plastic bottles, which, incidentally, were first patented by Andrew Wyeth's chemical-engineering brother. PET is short for polyethylene terephthalate, which is manufactured from petroleum products in plants all over the world. An Australian-owned corporation called Amcor is one of the bigger PET manufacturers, with dozens of factories on six continents (see map). So this is where the "bottled" in "bottled water" comes from. Funny, but Poland Spring doesn't mention these chemical plants, or the oil fields that supply them, in their marketing campaigns.

San Pellegrino water uses old-fashioned green glass instead of plastic. But a one-liter bottle of glass weighs five times as much as a one-liter bottle of plastic, and since these glass bottles are being shipped across the Atlantic from Italy on diesel-fuel-burning container ships, there are probably even more oil fumes in San Pellegrino's fizz than in Poland Spring's plastic bottles.

Ultimately, all of these petrochemicals are being refined, baked, burned, and ultimately trashed in order to duplicate the function of existing water infrastructure - our perfectly-safe public water supplies, pipes, and wells.

So read the article, and next time you find yourself with a handful of bottled water (which will be soon - they're ubiquitous), try to visualize all of the petroleum byproducts involved in its production floating in there among the pure mineral goodness. It will be good for what ails us.

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