NEWS

Harmful dependency on bottled water

Bottling and distributing spring water consumes large volumes of fuel, creates one of the world’s largest sources of waste in the form of plastic that takes 500 years to break down and costs as much as unleaded gasoline. Yet bottled water is continually gaining ground among consumers, even in areas where tap water is of far better quality. According to a recent report by the Earth Policy Institute, global consumption of bottled water reached 154 billion liters in 2004, up from 90 billion in 1999 – a 57 percent increase over five years. Naturally, the USA consumes the most (over 26 billion liters in 2004), followed by Mexico with 18 billion, China and Brazil with about 12 billion each, and then Italy and Germany with something over 10 billion liters annually. As for per capita consumption, the Italians top the list with 184 liters each in 2004 followed by Mexico and the United Arab Emirates with 169 and 164 liters per capita respectively, Belgium and France with about 146 liters and Spain with 137 liters. In Greece More and more Greeks are turning to the bottle. According to research by ICAP, the average annual rate of consumption has grown to 10 percent in the past decade. In areas where water quality is poor due to the accumulation of nitrates and other toxins (such as on the islands of Aegina and Zakynthos, Sithonia in northern Greece and Iraklion on Crete) people use bottled water for all their household needs. Every year, more than 1 billion plastic bottles wind up in Greece’s landfill sites. Yet bottled water costs up to 10,000 times more than tap water. According to the Earth Policy Institute report, the use of bottled water is also harmful to the environment, first of all due to the huge amounts of fuel required to transport it, creating proportionately large amounts of greenhouse gases. Nearly a quarter of the total amount of bottled water transported globally crosses national borders on ships, trains and trucks in order to reach markets thousands of kilometers away. Mineral fuels are also needed to manufacture the bottles, which are usually made of polyethylene terephthalate (commonly known as PET), which although theoretically better than PVC, which is very hard to recycle, is still a by-product of crude petroleum. The manufacture of plastic bottles to meet the demand of the American consumer alone calls for over 1.5 million barrels of petroleum a year, enough to keep 100,000 automobiles on the road for a year. On a global level, water bottle manufacturing requires 2.7 million tons of plastic a year. An even greater burden on the environment is the disposal of used bottles, very few of which are recycled. In the USA, it has been estimated that 86 percent of these containers end up in the garbage can. Recycling In Greece, where recycling is still a generally unfamiliar concept, plastic bottles account for 20 percent of garbage, compared to a mere 1-3 percent in other European countries. Greece is among the countries with the lowest percentage of recycled plastic (1 percent) – in no other Western European country is the percentage lower than 5 percent. «If we stood the plastic water bottles in Greece side by side, we would end up with a line longer than four times the country’s coastline, (which is 16,000 kilometers) and one-and-a-half times the length of the entire Mediterranean coastline (45,000 kilometers),» said Philippos Kyrkitsos, head of the Ecological Recycling Society. «We buy bottled water which we consume very quickly and are left with the bottle. Water is cheap, it is the packaging that is expensive. We are virtually buying garbage,» he said. Burning plastic produces toxic by-products such as chlorine and ash that contain heavy metals.Yet burying plastic means that it will take up to 1,000 years to biodegrade. «In garbage dumps, these materials stay with us for hundreds of years. The historians of the future will wonder why we consumed so much plastic,» said Kyrkitsos. Plastic bottles also take up a lot of space in landfill sites since they are difficult to compress. «They take up space that is 2.5 times their weight,» said Kyrkitsos. «In Greece, half of the landfill sites and waste treatment plants are full of plastic. If we removed it, the sites would last twice as long.» Throwing out plastic bottles entails risks for other species. Over a million large birds of threatened species die every year as well as many sea creatures. The rapid increase in the rate of consumption of bottled water means that more and more water is being drawn from areas where the major producers have their bottling plants. The Earth Policy Institute report states that drilling for water by the Coca-Cola company in India to manufacture the Dasani brand of bottled water and other drinks has caused water supply problems for over 50 local villages. Similar incidents have occurred in the USA, such as in Texas and near the Great Lakes, where farmers are suffering water shortages.