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OUR ADDICTION TO
PLASTIC BOTTLED WATER

Prior to the 1990s, when the plastic bottled water industry experienced a huge growth surge, how did people stay hydrated? We forget that not very long ago plastic bottled water wasn’t even an option.

In 1976, the average American drank 1.6 gallons of bottled water a year. In 2007, that number had increased to an average of 28.3 gallons per person. Today, Americans buy more than half a billion bottles of water every week - enough to circle the globe twice. Americans drink more bottled water than any other nation.

The environmental costs of this massive consumption of bottled water are significant. Eight out of ten plastic water bottles end up in a landfill, and each one takes centuries to decompose. Hundreds of millions end up littering the world’s streets, beaches, bay and ocean. If they are incinerated, toxic byproducts, such as chlorine gas and ash containing heavy metals, are released into the atmosphere.

Plastic is made from petroleum, and making all the plastic for the water bottles Americans consume uses 17 million barrels of crude oil annually. That is equivalent to the fuel needed for $1.3 million vehicles for a year. If you were to fill one quarter of a plastic water bottle with oil, you would be looking at roughly the amount used to produce that bottle. It takes an estimated 2000 times more energy to produce bottled water than it does to produce an equivalent amount of tap water. But the energy needed for plastic bottles goes far beyond their manufacture. They also require significant energy to transport. Bottled water often takes a long journey to U.S. markets. The Earth Policy Institute estimates that the energy used to pump, process, transport and refrigerate bottled water is over 50 million barrels of oil annually.

Bottled water is often filled right from the tap. One third of all bottled water sold in the United States is repackaged tap water. Some companies that are filling their bottles from underwater sources are taking so much that there are nearby communities worried that their own wells will run dry. Many people drink bottled water because they believe it to be of a higher quality, cleaner and better-tasting, but that’s not necessarily true. In the U.S., public water is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which requires multiple daily tests for bacteria and makes results available to the public. The Food and Drug Administration, which regulates bottled water, only requires weekly testing and does not share its findings with the EPA or the public.

Many plastic water bottles contain chemicals called phthalates that it has been shown can leach into the water. Phthalates are known to disrupt testosterone and other hormones, which can lead to infertility, cancer, miscarriages and other health problems.

In a bold move toward pollution control, San Francisco has just become the first city in America to ban the sale of plastic water bottles, a move that is building on a global movement to reduce the huge amount of waste from the billion-dollar plastic bottle industry.

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Written by: San Francisco Board of Supervisors


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