Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Bottled Up Anger
distributed 3/11/05 - ©2005

I was polite recently. I didn't launch into a full-scale rant about one of my pet peeves.

The particular occasion when I held my tongue was a two day gathering of church-based advocates for social justice. We had gathered around the dinner tables for a splendid meal, served up by folk from the host church. After the main course was served, one of the gracious hosts came by our table and asked if we needed anything else. The woman seated across from me said, "Can I have a glass of water, please?"

We watched with a growing sense of dread as the kind gentleman walked to the kitchen, and picked up a paper cup from beside the sink. As he stood at the kitchen counter, we could see a choice. To his left, there was a faucet with an abundance of cool, pure water. To his right were cartons of bottled water, at room temperature, and of uncertain purity.

The tap water is delivered to the church through the ultimate efficiency of gravity from Denver's high mountain sources, and provided essentially free by a well-regulated public utility. The poorly-regulated bottled water is encased in petroleum-based plastic, packed on a cardboard tray, and shrink-wrapped in more plastic. It is shipped long distances by truck or rail, and sold for considerable profit by the outlets of multinational corporations.

Our helpful, gracious host did not hesitate. He reached to his right, and opened a bottle of water to pour into the cup. When he brought it back to the table, my dinner companion offered a polite, if subdued "thank you." We waited until the server had moved away before we talked briefly about the whole bottled water phenomenon.

In that setting, I didn't launch into my full diatribe. And having spent so much time spelling out this story, you're now safe from an extended harangue, too!

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Are there settings where bottled water makes sense? Of course.

There are communities where the tap water is not pure. Lead from the pipes or chemicals from the ground create real health risks for some populations. In settings like that, bottled water -- preferably in the 5 gallon size from local sources -- is prudent.

A shift from tap water can be appropriate at times, even when it is not a matter of life-and-death. When we lived in rural Iowa, the water was so hard that a cup of tea generated a crust that could be scraped off with a spoon. We bought jugs of spring water, and used it to make tea when we were entertaining.

Most of the bottled water that is sold, though, isn't related to those sorts of concerns. For many people, it is a convenience, sometimes a display of status, or just an unconscious participation in consumer culture. And now, in the context of meetings, it is apparently considered more hospitable to line up rows of water bottles than it is to put out a couple of pitchers of ice water with some glasses.

That convenience, status and hospitality, though, has a significant impact.

In 1997, 3.3 billion bottles of water were sold in the US. Five years later, the number reached 15 billion. 15 billion bottles, serving up what is generally available at the sink.

Industry experts report that only about 12% of those water bottles are recycled, compared to around 30% for plastic soft drink bottles. (People seem to use the water in settings where recycling is not readily available.) Lots of petroleum is used in creating those bottles, and lots of trash is created when they are tossed away.

Lots of petroleum is used -- and greenhouse gasses produced -- when moving around that water. The stuff sold in a Colorado store may well come from Wisconsin or California.

There's even a Colorado-based company that bottles water from artesian springs on the South Pacific island of Fiji, and ships it half-way around the world. It is a hot item in luxury hotels and restaurants. They claim that the water has a "soft" taste, and that it has some healthy minerals. But our world can't afford that sort of conspicuous consumption.

The proliferation of bottled water is a revealing indicator of many factors driving the ecological crises of our world. As is so often the case, the ecological costs in producing, packaging, shipping and disposing of products is hidden to us. We see, too, how the combined power of popular culture and the marketing industry are able to convince us of the "necessity" and the "normality" of an entirely optional product.

This absurd product provides us with simple opportunities to act for sustainability.

  • If you're involved in planning a meeting, don't allow anybody to buy cases of water.
  • For your own use, get a nice, durable plastic water bottle, and fill it from the tap -- then use it over and over and over again!
  • When you're looking for an example of our unsustainable way of life, and the ecological impacts that have no saving graces, talk with people about bottled water.

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Jesus affirmed the basic qualities of hospitality and justice that come with water. At the final judgement, he said, the faithful would be rewarded, for "I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink." (Matthew 25:35)

If Jesus were restating that parable today, though, would he have a different word of condemnation for the unfaithful? Would he say, "Depart from me into the eternal fire, for I was thirsty, and you opened a bottle of water for me"?

Maybe Jesus wouldn't say that. But I've sure been tempted!


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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