As Flint’s water crisis seems to be finally dwindling down with lead levels below the federal safety standard for the past year, five of its water resource sites will be closing next month. Residents may soon be able to turn on their taps and receive drinkable water without having to rely on bottles. Aside from the relief residents will have in receiving clean water, this is likely also a relief for the city, which is estimated to be spending more than $3 million every month on plastic bottles and related drinking water supplies.
Although currently a necessity to Flint’s approximately 100,000 residents, bottled water is consumed globally at an astronomical rate: more than one million plastic bottles are consumed every minute. In the United States, more bottled water is consumed than soda. Despite the fact that bottled water costs more than 300 times the cost of tap water, The Guardian notes that globally, bottled water consumption stands to increase by 20% within the next four years. Because the majority of plastic bottles evade recycling efforts and instead find their way into the ocean, concerns persist not only for long-term environmental pollution, but also for their immediate effects on human society. Researchers have noted that consumption of fish results in the inevitable consumption of thousands of plastic particles, and have estimated that there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050. On the other hand, some researchers have found that plastic actually decays within a year of landing in the ocean, but this results in the release of various toxic chemicals which threaten marine wildlife. According to The Guardian, this unsustainable consumption stands as a crisis as threatening as climate change.
Like Flint, some of the consumption of bottled water can be traced to the risk of contamination from lead pipes. For example in Boston, the majority of public schools rely on bottled water consumption over tap water for this very reason; students in Portland were required to drink bottled water for the 2016-2017 school year over similar concerns. But health concerns are not always the case for a lack of public drinking water. In the U.K., more than half of British International Airports lack free drinking water fountains, and its pub-goers would rather buy a bottle of water than ask for tap water, not out of health concerns, but because they are “too embarrassed” to ask for a refill. Further, the Washington Post notes that the number of public drinking water fountains has actually diminished nationally within the past few decades because of a more negative public perception of drinking water fountains: “The sense today, though, is that [drinking water fountains] are dangerous, they’re not maintained and they’re dirty” (internal quotations omitted). Yet clean water brought in through public drinking water facilities so drastically improved public health throughout the 20th century that it cut urban deaths in half. The United States EPA also notes the various economic, social, and health benefits of public drinking water fountains, arguing that “It’s time to bring back the water fountain.”
Creating more public drinking water fountains may be one solution to the bottled water epidemic. Many have also tried to promote the use of reusable water bottles in an effort to get away from single-use plastic bottles. Some have instead argued for a water bottle tax, noting that such taxes, like similar efforts to reduce plastic bag consumption, have resulted in lowering bottle consumption by 6.4%. Alternatively, rather than trying to reduce consumption of water bottles generally, some companies have turned to simply making environmentally-friendly bottles, noting that given current water bottle consumption trends, they are at least “making the best of a bad situation.” Regardless of the method, current consumption needs to be drastically reduced if we are to avoid the significant social, health, and economic costs of the world’s plastic bottle epidemic.