What’s the Problem?
Bottled Water: $1.22/gallon. Tap Water: $.004/gallon. The price of bottled water is more than 300% higher than tap water. Plastic water bottles are more expensive and create more plastic waste than drinking tap water. So why are over a third of Philadelphians choosing to drink bottled water at home, despite the costs and waste? It doesn’t stop there: bottled water has serious environmental and health implications at the individual and macro level. The 2018 Philadelphia Annual Customer Satisfaction survey, conducted by ImpactED and the Philadelphia Water Department (PWD), aimed to uncover drinking water behavior of Philadelphians.
The research team discovered that 39% of Philadelphians choose to drink bottled water instead of tap water in their own homes. While this trend has begun to move in the right direction, decreasing 4% from last year’s results (43%), this reality remains very problematic for a city with a relatively high poverty rate and a reputation for an abundance of street litter.
Who makes up the 39% of Philadelphians that drink primarily bottled water at home? The survey revealed that this group is disproportionately low income, less educated, minority, and female. This subset of Philadelphians drinks bottled water for its taste (50%), convenience (44%), and because of their concerns about lead and heavy metals (37%).
Research has shown that individuals with less education are more likely to trust bottled water instead of tap water (Melnick, 2011). With the third most common reason being concerns about lead and other metals affecting the water supply in their homes, PWD and ImpactED are working to educate Philadelphians on the quality of their water and pipe safety, and the unseen financial burden accompanying bottled water consumption.
Why does it matter?
Drinking bottled water has very problematic environmental and health implications. While the financial costs are grave, the environmental costs are extremely concerning on a global level. Plastic bottles negatively affect the environment through massive plastic waste, utilizes limited fossil fuels, and raises health concerns.
- Plastic Waste and Toxicity. The lifecycle of a plastic bottle interacts with the environment in an unsustainable way. Approximately 86% of empty plastic water bottles in the United States are not recycled and instead end up in the garbage. Every year, this amounts to two million tons of plastic bottles accumulating in U.S. landfills alone. Some landfills end up getting rid of the plastic bottles by incinerating them, which releases toxic byproducts such as heavy metals and chlorine gas into the air. In turn, this can disrupt air quality for everyone.
Not all plastic bottles end up in either the recycling bin or the garbage can. A decent amount ends up clogging waterways and as litter on sidewalks and roads. This requires additional clean up and efforts from municipalities in terms of human capital, machinery, and time.
- Wasted Energy. On a more granular level, the process required to bring one plastic bottle to market requires a significant amount of energy. Energy is utilized to transport the water, chill the bottles, and collect the product after usage. The energy expended can be quantified by filling a plastic water bottle up 25% with oil. For an item with such a short life-span, this is a notable amount of resources.
- Health Implications. Drinking bottled water exposes individuals to dangerous health effects. Health concerns regarding bottled water centers around two items: Bisphenol A, commonly known as BPA and Polyvinyl Chloride, or PVC. BPA is proven to be hazardous to human health and linked to issues such as cancer, neurological difficulties, early puberty in females, reduced fertility, and defects in newborn babies. At the same time, PVC’s, which contain phthalates, can lead to developmental and reproductive issues — and the FDA does not currently regulate them. We are exposing individuals in our neighborhoods to these dangerous health effects if we do not make a conscious effort to decrease the plastic bottle usage of our target population, which already suffers from less than adequate healthcare.
What Can We Do About It?
Activists recognize the seriousness of this issue. To promote tap water consumption, many localities have created initiatives focused on health, education, behavior change, cost, socioeconomic status, and environmental awareness.
Here in Philadelphia, there is a new campaign, “Drink Philly Tap”, which aims to promote drinking tap water. Drink Philly Tap empowers Philadelphians with information and knowledge to choose drinking tap water over bottled water. They envision a future where Philadelphia residents have pride in their water and understand the environmental, financial and physical benefits of drinking Philly tap.
This campaign includes a diverse group of stakeholders, named the “Water Working Committee”, with members from ImpactED, Philadelphia Water Department, University of Pennsylvania Water Center, neighborhood water ambassadors, and other professional organizations.
To kick off the campaign, the Philadelphia Water Department held a public water bar in front of City Hall, where city leaders handed out glasses of chilled tap water from various parts of Philadelphia. This was an interactive and educational way to spark the discussion about tap water, who drinks it, and how it tastes. This initiative has recruited and trained neighborhood ambassadors to engage and educate their respective areas on the reality of Philly tap water. Throughout this year, the committee, led by ImpactED, will continue to educate, engage, and interact with residents on the topic of Philadelphia tap water.
By: Ami Patel (ImpactED Fellowship 2018-2019)
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