Bottled Water Use, or Are We Really Drinking Unicorn Tears?
“I’m going to assume that it comes from the reverse membrane osmosis of tap water – but bottled water marketers will probably tell you it’s the tears of unicorns,” says Alex Serpo, Australian environmental journalist, when asked where bottled water in his country comes from.
In a similar tone, responding to the question whether it is fair to pay for it, he says: “Yes, and I wish they charged more for it. Doubling it in price would be a great environmental and economic outcome.”
Continuing our series on bottled water use around the world (see: EU initiatives and designer Karim Rashid’s Bubble Bottle, and an interview with activists in Japan and Portugal), this time we will focus on Australia and Mexico.
Serpo explains that in Australia, the driest inhabited continent on earth, battles are currently fought over sustainable water extraction from the Murray Darling river system. Murray Darling is Australia’s most important agricultural river. And yet, the situation with potable water in Australia is excellent, according to Serpo: “Australia has potable water available to almost the entire population. Some of our potable water is also of a very high quality, mostly due to relatively pristine catchments. Both public and private enterprises are involved in the water supply chain.”
As for national water policy, Serpo says that water use should be prioritised in a way to maximise social good, ecosystem protection, economic output and employment. “In some places the water situations is almost completely hopeless (in India, for example), but in Australia, a combination of water recycling, water efficiency and renewable energy-powered desalination can provide a sustainable supply that minimises environmental impacts.”
Unlike Australia, Mexico’s water situation is dire. The New York Times reported in July 2012 about Mexico’s excessive use of bottled water:
Drinking bottled water is one thing. But bathing one’s baby in it? In Mexico, the world’s largest per capita consumer of bottled water, anything goes … A study released last year by the Inter-American Development Bank found that Mexicans used about 127 gallons [480 litres] of bottled water per person a year, more than four times the bottled water consumption in the United States and more than any country surveyed.
There are other important factors related to such widespread consumption of bottled water in Mexico, including clever advertising campaigns by multinational corporations and the failure of the Mexican government to provide timely data on water safety. Along with the high costs of purchasing bottled water, empty plastic water bottles litter landfills and roadsides at an alarming rate.
Marco Polo Espinosa, professional photographer, language teacher, and currently owner of bottled spring water plant Peña Water, says that in Mexico it is not safe to drink tap water and that he personally does not use it. “Bottled water is popular in our country. We are used to it,” he says. “The cost varies, it depends on the brand – from 25 cents to 2 dollars per litter approximately.”
Asked about water policy in Mexico and whether there is any plan focused on the use of water, he says: “Yes, there is Norma 127 which indicates the parametres of potable water. There are some plans to take water to every community; nonetheless this water is not completely potable. We should use water in an effective way, try to conserve our environment, and promote the usage of new technology to maintain all our water sources clean and safe. That way hopefully we are going to avoid scarcity in the future.”
While bottled water use is a a phenomenon present around the world, and discussions on how to bring it to a more sustainable level are on the rise, the situation in Mexico looks particularly complex. It is up to the Mexican authorities not only to do their best to secure pure tap water, but also to give citizens enough confidence that its usage is indeed safe.