News from the Tennessee Valley Living Today

A painful message in a bottle

It's sleek, it's chic and it's costly — really costly — in ways many of us have never considered. Bottled water is a major craze in our society. In fact, Charles Fishman recently described bottled water (in an article on's online magazine) as the "food phenomenon of our lives." But problems lurk beneath this seemingly good thing which has become a popular product in today's market.

You may not be surprised to hear that Americans spent more on bottled water than we did on iPods or movie tickets. We spent a whopping $15 billion on bottled water last year, and it's projected Americans will add another billion to that this year.

It probably isn't shocking news that we pay more (up to four times more per gallon) for bottled water than for gasoline. And we can get this same product straight from our kitchen faucet. "But au contraire," you may say, "bottled water is cleaner and safer." Well, you'd be wrong.

The staggering news about bottled water these days isn't about the water at all. It's about the bottle. Americans went through 50 billion bottles last year. That's 167 bottles per person and a huge influx for our bulging landfills.

Water bottles are made of totally recyclable polyethylene terephthalate, but we only recycle about 23 percent, which leaves 38 billion water bottles to go to the landfills. A billion dollars worth of plastic — and a lot of precious landfill area — are wasted.

Nestle Waters made a step toward reducing (slightly) the problem by making their half-liter bottles lighter (15 grams vs. 19 grams). But regardless of weight, most still end up in a landfill or scattered on a roadside.

Jim Hairston, the Alabama Cooperative Extension System's water quality coordinator, is concerned about America's craze for bottled water and our lack of funding for public drinking water and waste-water facilities.

"The water that comes out of our taps is every bit as safe, or safer, than the majority of bottled water products," said Hairston, a professor of agronomy and soils at Auburn University.

"We don't need it," said Hairston, "but many other people in the world do need it. For example, Fiji, where a state-of-the-art factory turns out a million bottles of one of the hippest bottled waters on the U.S. market, is amidst a population that does not have safe, reliable drinking water."

"Think about this: It's easier for Americans in Beverly Hills or Baltimore to get a 'safe, pure, refreshing Fiji water' than most people in Fiji," Hairston said.

Now that's irony.

Jerry Chenault is with the Cooperative Extension System in Lawrence County.

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