Boycotting bottled water means you support the idea that public access to clean, safe water is not only a basic human right, but that it’s a goddamn technological triumph worth protecting. It means you believe that ensuring public access to this resource is the only way to guarantee it will be around in a few more years.
Clean, safe drinking water that flows freely out of our faucets is a feat of engineering that humans have been been perfecting for two millennia. It is a cornerstone of civilization. It is what our cities are built upon. And over the years the scientists and hydrologists and technicians who help get water to our houses have also become our environmental stewards, our infrastructural watchdogs, our urban visionaries. Drinking the water these people supply to our homes is the best possible way to protect future access to water worldwide.
Companies that package water in a single-use bottle are not concerned with the future. They are not invested in the long-term effects of climate change on an endangered watershed, nor are they working to prepare a megacity for an inevitable natural disaster. What they are interested in is their bottom line: Marketing a “healthy” product to compensate for the fact that people are buying less of their other products that are known to case obesity and diabetes—and selling it for at prices that are 240 to 10,000 times higher than what you pay for tap water.
Drinking municipal tap water means connecting yourself to your local water system, where the goals are to think holistically about the conservation of natural resources, replenish local aquifers, and build a resilient infrastructure to distribute water to the public.
Drinking bottled water means colluding with a corporation which is not required to release any public information about how it plans to cut costs, exploit workers, dig wells, or employ a fossil-fueled supply chain in its quest to get a bottle of overpriced water into your hands.
Not that our current water system doesn’t need an upgrade. Drinking fountains, for example, are the great neglected infrastructure of our cities. Once an amenity found on every corner, these miracles of modern life lapsed into disrepair. It’s not just in parks and other public areas—many schools decided it was too expensive to replace old pipes, so they ripped out their drinking fountains instead, forcing kids to buy bottled water.
Turning these urban springs of fresh water into tiny altars of awareness can make water access top of mind—and provide a better public service. Last week Los Angeles declared Tap Water Day, celebrating the design of its new “drinking stations” and a new app that’s hoping to map and eventually overhaul all of the city’s fountains. Maybe that’s how we get people to start appreciating the role of water in our cities—by improving our most visible water supply out in public.
But we can’t stop at the municipal level. We have to think bigger. Eleven percent of the Earth’s population does not have access to safe drinking water. There are people in this country who are currently facing a groundwater contamination crisis. Instead of throwing our Great American Problem at people by the plastic-encased-in-plastic case, we should be focusing on designing and building comprehensive, permanent water systems for every person on this planet. Each bottle of water purchased is a vote against that goal.
Giving up bottled water also means thinking long-term about preserving water security. You may have reservoirs near you brimming over with fresh rainfall right now, but the truth is that the amount of potable water on this planet is growing more scarce every year. The bottled water industry is one of the fastest-growing on the planet. Last year it made $100 billion, an amount that is expected to double within five years. Now consider the fact that it actually takes the equivalent of three bottles of water to make a single water bottle. Every swig from a plastic blob in the name of convenience moves us closer to a world without any clean water at all.