Breaking the bottled water habit

— -- When I travel, having immediate access to water is essential. I try to carry a water bottle at all times to avoid dehydration or soothe a dry and scratchy throat in flight, but it's becoming increasingly difficult. In the old days I purchased small bottles of water by the case and carried one in my briefcase through the duration of each trip. When I finished one bottle I would discard the empty en route and purchase a new bottle of water.

That was before 9/11 and the new rules banning liquids through security. That caused me to dump my water bottle in the airport trash before security screening only to purchase a new bottle at an airport concession upon exiting the security maze. This process would repeat at every airport on my trip.

I know it's wasteful and expensive to purchase so many plastic bottles only to discard them, whether the contents have been consumed or not. And when I see a pile of discarded, half-filled plastic bottles in the trash at the security line entrance I know I'm not alone. The waste is enormous, but what can travelers do?

Carol Misseldine has some suggestions. Misseldine is the Sustainability Coordinator in Mill Valley, Calif., one of a growing list of 60 American cities that have canceled bottled water contracts. Except for emergencies, Misseldine believes bottled water is wasteful and largely unnecessary when we've invested heavily in a safe and reliable public water supply.

She also believes that the bottled water craze is creating a global environmental problem. Most bottled water is sold in small plastic containers like the ones we buy at airports. The Container Recycling Institute (CRI) estimates Americans buy more than 28 billion single serving bottles annually. Most people assume the vast majority of plastic bottles are recycled, but that is not the case, as the market for recycling plastic is not as well developed as the infrastructure for recycling glass or paper.

CRI estimates more than 80% of plastic bottles end up in landfills or incinerators. Hundreds of millions of plastic bottles litter our roads, beaches, streams, and other waterways, according to CRI, and we taxpayers spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year for their disposal and cleanup. Getting rid of plastic bottles is no easy task. Incineration releases toxic gases and ashes and plastic is not biodegradable, so it will remain wherever it is dumped for 1,000 years.

Misseldine says 25% of plastic bottles end up in the ocean. Over time, plastic bottles "photo-degrade" into tiny plastic pieces that no living being can digest, but are ingested by marine animals which mistake them for eggs. "Sometimes they suffocate or starve because the plastic makes them feel so full that they don't eat anything. But that plastic moves up the food chain and we eat fish, so the toxins eventually go into us," Misseldine warns.

But bottled water usage is rising, 6% annually in the U.S. alone. The Beverage Marketing Corporation projects worldwide bottled water consumption will exceed 50 billion gallons this year. Americans will spend $12.5 billion and consume over 9 billion gallons, more than 30 gallons per person. Most of the cost goes into production, packaging, transportation, advertising, retailing, marketing and profits, rather than the cost of the water itself.

Besides toxicity and the recycling issues, there are other reasons why Misseldine, environmental groups and now U.S. cities are urging consumers to abandon bottled water. Manufacturing bottled water is extremely resource and energy intensive. Plastic water bottles are petroleum products and require 17 million barrels of oil to create our 28 billion water bottles according to the Pacific Research Institute (PRI), an environmental think tank. PRI says that manufacturing also unleashes more than 2.5 million tons of carbon dioxide and it takes three liters of water to produce a single liter of bottled water. Shipping bottled water to its destination consumes yet more oil.

Misseldine urges travelers to ditch their plastic water bottles and purchase a reusable, toxin-free, metal water bottle. Her favorite is the Klean Kanteen because it has a nice little lid and handle, but any metal water bottle will do. Misseldine abhors the use of disposable plastic and other containers on airplanes. "When I see the waste on airplanes, it brings me to my knees," she says.

It should be noted that the American Beverage Association refutes many of the claims presented by Misseldine and environmental groups. But it is in the self interest of their members to retain the status quo and profit from the continued sale of bottled water, so many of their counterarguments come across as unconvincing.

So what's a thirsty traveler to do? Since my conversation with Misseldine I have stopped purchasing bottled water and now refill the same plastic water bottle over and over with tap water most everywhere I go. At the airport I dump my unused tap water before entering the security maze and refill it at a drinking fountain on the other side. If every flier did the same, we could save a lot of bottles — and a bundle of money in the process.

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Send David your feedback: David Grossman is a veteran business traveler and former airline industry executive. He writes a column every other week on topics of interest and concern to business travelers. E-mail him at