Aiming for quality

The bottled water industry has certainly been in the spotlight in the last few months. After San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom pushed to prohibit the city’s departments and agencies from buying bottled water, a number of editorials have been published in which editors openly criticize the cost and effect of bottled water on the environment.

I don’t think the price of bottled water has been the best-kept secret. Neither is the fact that purchasing bottled water is far better than soft drinks, which are filled with calories and are blamed for adding to the already-existing obesity problems in the U.S.

On the other hand, the environmental aspect of this debate should not be taken lightly. According to a recent editorial published in the New York Times titled “In Praise of Tap Water,” the Earth Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., estimated that it takes about 1.5 million barrels of oil to make water bottles used in the U.S. each year, of which only 23% are recycled.

Nevertheless, I don’t disagree with the International Bottled Water Association’s response that states: “If the debate is about the impact of plastic packaging on the environment … any effort to reduce the resources necessary to produce and distribute packaged goods—and increase recycling rates—must focus on all packaging.”

I really do not think the debate should be focused on tap water versus bottled water. Consumers choose to drink one or the other and most of the time both, depending not only on preference but also lifestyle.

I think it is pretty clear that bottled water continues to be more convenient than tap water. For example, when was the last time you saw new public water fountains being installed in your area?

Instead of pointing the finger at the bottled water industry, I think the focus should be on building consumer awareness about the quality of tap water. After all, the quality of U.S. drinking water as it leaves a municipality is some of the best in the world. In addition, continuously tightening regulations and advancements in drinking water treatment ensure that good, safe drinking water will reach people’s taps.

Perhaps consumers are more likely to spend money on bottled water because of the bad shape of our nation’s drinking water infrastructure. According to the Environmental Protection Agency and various nonfederal groups, the nation’s drinking water and wastewater systems will face increasing challenges over the next several decades in maintaining and replacing pipes, treatment plants and other infrastructure. While the investment made over decades in these facilities is enormous, even more funds will be needed in the future to support efforts to maintain clean and safe water.

An article in the June issue of U.S. News titled “Water Woes” questions whether Americans take tap water for granted because of the hundreds of thousands of miles of underground pipe laid generations ago. According to the article, studies by government and utilities show that cities and towns will need to spend $250 to $500 billion more over the next 20 years to maintain the drinking water and wastewater systems. Yet, our country is used to paying some of the lowest prices for tap water in the developed world.

I think instead of pitting bottled water against tap water, we should try to focus on the issue that matters most—ensuring that high-quality, safe drinking water reaches people’s taps.

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