Inquirer Editorial: Bottled water isn't worth the environmental cost

Discarded water bottles in a trash can near the Fairmount Water Works.
Discarded water bottles in a trash can near the Fairmount Water Works. (Inquirer file photo)
Posted: April 03, 2013

Independence National Historical Park should embrace the virtues of another priceless public asset with Philadelphia roots: tap water.

Last week, the group Corporate Accountability International began urging prominent national parks to stop sales of bottled water within their boundaries on the grounds that "one national treasure (our parks) shouldn't be used to sell another (our water)." The National Park Service lets each of its parks decide whether to ban bottled water, and several have done so. While a few more parks wouldn't make much of a dent in the behemoth bottled-water industry, they could lead the way in encouraging the public to drink the water we already own.

Independence National Park is in the right place to promote public water and its accompanying benefits. Philadelphia's was a pioneering municipal water system, partly a response to the yellow fever epidemic of the late 18th century. And well before there were national parks, the city began creating what would become Fairmount Park to protect the watershed around the Fairmount Water Works on the Schuylkill.

Given all that the city and country have invested in developing safe, reliable water supplies over the two centuries since, it's hard to comprehend the national craze for private water packaged and transported with petroleum products. U.S. per capita consumption of bottled water has increased by more than 50 percent over the past decade, and sales reached $11.7 billion last year.

Yes, for one's health, bottled water easily beats soda, juice, and most of the other alternatives, which it has displaced. But water bottlers have exploited and even encouraged the mistaken notion that their product is somehow safer and healthier than tap water. Research shows, however, that the quality of tap water is at least as good as that of bottled. Indeed, much of the water sold in plastic containers comes from municipal water supplies.

No one is suggesting that people shouldn't be able to buy bottled water if they insist on it. And being in the middle of a metropolis, Independence Park certainly won't be able to stop anyone who is determined to avoid the Philadelphia vintage. But it can encourage visitors to try the local brew with sales of reusable containers instead of bottles of Dasani and Aquafina.

Public officials can also help by improving access to tap water. Philadelphia parks sometimes seem to have more working drinking fountains for dogs than for people. General neglect of such facilities has contributed to the stigmatization of tap water and the devaluation of a public good.

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