Invisible waste (part 1): water

Environmentally aware individuals are perpetually bombarded by the worst sort of false choice, one that’s been drilled into us even by environmental activist organizations.

You know the sort of false choice – the one where, as Adam points out, a big corporation will sponsor a wing of the local museum or aquarium and include a helpful display saying “it’s up to us [individual museum-goers] to make sure there’s enough water/fish/trees/air for everyone”. When quite often it’s the corporate sponsor who’s more responsible for doing said damage than all the museum-goers combined.

That is, we’re not running out of water – water is being stolen. Remember where water is used: 91% of worldwide water is used by agriculture or industry. 8% is used by households.

Every product that you buy has likely used tens if not hundreds of gallons of water in its production process. In the United States, every 1 out 5 gallons of gas (roughly) comes from Canadian tar sands syncrude, which requires one of the most environmentally destructive and water intensive processes imaginable. Conventional agriculture typically uses underground aquifers or long-distance irrigation without any concern about sustainability.

I agree that it’s good to use a little less water during daily showers (or take showers less frequently). But maybe it’s time to rethink whether simple things like staying clean are the luxuries we should be feeling pressured to cut out rather than cutting the world’s water use where it should be cut – at and by the biggest users of it. And here we can have some small impact, as we choose what products we buy and what food we eat.

Let’s consider a major example of this.

Bottled water is bad – this much has been known for a while. Just making 12 ounces of it takes gallons of water in production and shipping, not to mention all the electricity and fossil fuels consumed in making the plastic and shipping the bottle across the world. Not to mention that the water itself isn’t cleaner than the tap in most cases.

Some bottled water isn’t just bad, it’s ridiculous.  Fiji bottled water is particularly bad – in with the country’s dictatorship. And who ever thought it was a good idea to ship water half way around the world? It’s disturbing that Fiji water is now one of the most popular imported waters, but stepping back from it, bottled water makes no sense no matter where it’s from or how bad the company’s practices are.

The best solution (if you want cold / room temperature water) is to drink tap water from a cup or receptacle made of metal, ceramic, or glass (lead free, of course). It’s best to avoid plastic bottles, even ones like Nalgenes, because they’ve been found to leach Bisphenol A. I often use a glass mason jar – mason jars have leak proof lids and no mystery ingredients, and are pretty much infinitely reusable for a variety of purposes.

There are very few places in the United States where tap water is bad enough that it can’t be consumed directly; in those instances, a simple water filter is preferable to the absurdity that is bottled water.

Don’t worry though, LEED-certified “green” bottled water factories are on the way.


Despite all of this evidence of the general badness of bottled water, it’s among the most-common culturally-invisible ways that we waste things. I’m always reminded of this when I see talks given by environmentalists, and they’re drinking from bottled water they were handed as they got up to the podium and talk about taking shorter showers – if they don’t recognize it, who will?

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