A few weeks ago, A Fresh Squeeze published a story
about biodegradable water bottles made of corn resin instead of petroleum. The piece revealed that the so-called bio-plastic may not be the answer to our plague of ribbed-plastic waste, since growing enough extra corn to manufacture the 100 million bottles we dispose of each day could mean a slew of environmental woes, from increased land clearing to producing the additional petroleum fuel needed to run farm machinery. Not to mention that the bottles require controlled conditions—a sustained 140 degrees for 80 days—to decompose. Unless commercial compost sites start a pick-up service, it's a good bet that most of these bottles would meet the same fate as their oil-based brethren.
The story brings to light the heart of the problem with America's water bottle addiction: What we consume may be of lesser importance than how much we consume. Even if those 100 million bottles vaporized into bio-friendly fairy dust the moment they hit the landfills each day, it would be worth considering how much energy goes into making and distributing them in the first place. And, moreover, do we really need them?
In July of this year, San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom decided the answer to that question was no. Arguing that the San Francisco water supply is, in many cases, superior to what's sold in the convenience stores, the mayor banned spending on bottled water for all city departments and sponsored events. And Newsom was right: In a study conducted by the National Resources Defense Council of over 100 brands of bottled water, one-third contained contaminants, including synthetic chemicals, bacteria and arsenic. There was no need for the city to spend $500,000 a year on bottled water when the Sierra snowmelt provides San Francisco with some of the best tap water in the country.
But does Chicago's potable supply hold water against the pristine Hetch Hetchy reservoir? Well, for the most part, yes. In a 2003 study of drinking water in cities nationwide (again conducted by the NRDC), Chicago tap water was given a grade of "excellent," with contaminants at less than 25-percent of the national average; meaning there is negligible amounts of bacterial pathogens, heavy metals and chlorine treatment bi-products. Of course, a "negligible amount" is all a matter of perspective; for some—say, parents with young children—this could mean zero, particularly in the case of lead, which can cause brain damage and developmental problems and isn't considered truly safe by the EPA at any level, even the minimal amounts in Chicago's pipelines.
And then there are folks who just can't stomach the idea of tap water—for the trace levels of contaminants, for the taste, whatever. The Texas-based company Pure Water 2Go manufactures filtered caps that fit standard 16-ounce or one-liter bottles; they remove metals, bacteria and the taste and odor of chlorine, and will last until you've purified 40 gallons of water. PW2G sells filters separately at $7.95 a pair, or with PET plastic recyclable bottles. You can even buy filters for your sport bottle or canteen and do away with bottle waste entirely.
As for me, my healthy invincibility complex grants me the power to fill glass bottles straight from the unadulterated tap without a second thought, but all the new developments had me curious. New Wave Enviro sells bio-plastic bottles, complete with filters, for a little more than eight bucks a piece. That's slightly more than the bottle/filter combo from PW2G, but I figured the extra .60 cents went toward the relatively new alchemy of turning corn into plastic. I ordered three—one for myself and for each of my roommates—to justify shipping 30 grams of plastic from Englewood, Colorado to Humboldt Park.
The bottles came a week later, packed in Styrofoam peanuts, looking and behaving very much like every other disposable water bottle I've encountered. As I tapped, squeezed and sniffed the unremarkable bottle, I wondered how many people would go through the trouble of lovingly taking their bio-plastic bottle, once it had squeezed its last drop, to the nearest commercial composting site for a proper burial. The few who would are probably not the folks tossing plastic bottles in the trash on a daily basis. Okay, so the bottle is still up in the air, but what about the filter? How would the tap water taste?
Honestly, I couldn't tell much of a difference. But then, I can't distinguish between water from Fiji and water from the Great Lakes anyhow. I can report that my friend, who doesn't care for tap water and first introduced me to the in-bottle filter, swears by hers. For now, I'm carrying my earth-friendly, body-friendly, filtered, compostable bottle, but I suspect the moment it springs a leak, I'll be back to my trusty anonymous glass sidekick.
It took a move from the regimented lawnscapes of the suburbs to the congestion of a major metropolis for Sharon to look twice at what she puts in the trash, down the sink and into her own body. She reports fortnightly on her endeavors to change "greening" from calculated deviation to a practicable way of life. You can contact her here.