Monday 30 January 2012

Bottling it - Packaged water and its environmental impact

This time I want to look at the issue of plastic waste creating by drinking water from bottles.
I am writing from South India, and the content of this post is based on experience of travelling here, but the point should be applicable to anywhere where bottled water is available in plastic: It is creating waste regardless, even when it is recycled. (More about recycling and its efficiencies and inefficiencies, in another post)

 If you have spent anytime in a country, like India, without a centralised waste management system and recycling plants, you will have seen an enormous pile of empty plastic water bottles. It is a dramatic sight not easily forgotten; sometimes tumbling down a small cliff in front of a perfect sunset, sometimes clogging up a blackened water way. These are the scenes of tourism outside of the tourist’s health’s comfort zone, the understandably poor meeting between western digestive systems and water systems less clean than they’re used to.

It is also a startling glimpse through the doors of perception. The huge amount of waste we create on a daily basis is dealt with very tidily in the west. We can ignore it, along with our mortality. In India there is a destabilising honesty to it, there is nowhere for your waste to go. It will pile up around us, then probably be burnt.

The water in many countries is not going to be perfect for many of us when it comes out of the tap. Depending on where you are the cause for concern will vary, in Israel you may be wanting to filter out heavy metals while in India it’s micro organisms. Naturally enough this is something we would want to avoid, but due to the impact mentioned above, buying bottled water is not the best solution, filtration and treatment is.

Here are some alternatives to buying bottled water when the water is not clean enough;

  • Purification tablets.
    • You will probably need to arrive with enough for the whole trip. The best chemical purifier is iodine, yet it is not to be used by pregnant women or those with thyroid problems.
  • Water Filter or Sterilisation, 
    • With a small pore size less than 4 microns; it needs to be effective against both bacterias and parasites. Water filters come in travel size also.
    • Using ultra-violet rays to kill all micro organisms. This is common in many multifunctional household filtration systems, and it also available as a Steri Pen for travel purposes.
  • Buying Processed water 
    • Boiled and Filtered or Mineral water bought in bulk. In many towns you can find places to fill up water. And if you’re staying for a week or more you can buy water in bulk, filling up this way is more sustainable as the large plastic containers of 20 litres (5 gallon US) will be reused many times.
  • Drinking the water in Cities 
    • I don’t actually recommend this, but some feel it is fine. The levels of chlorine and other disinfectants and anti-bacterial additives from the water treatment plants make it safer. Bear in mind that water contamination is mostly invisible to the naked eye, and much water is stored in tanks on a roof before it is drunk.

You may have strong digestive system with guts made of iron. If so feel free to drink from every tap in town. Some do. The above advice is just that advice, do as you feel. But if you have a digestive system as sensitive as your ecological conscience then the goal of safe water and a clean environment is possible.

Let me know in the comments your thoughts, feelings and solutions to this situation.


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