30 July 2012

Two bottles of your finest oil, please!

Editor's note: James Workman taught "Unlocking the Real Worth of Water" as a visiting professor at Wesleyan University last semester. He told his students that they -- like all people -- needed to be "water resource managers" because water allocations are increasingly driven by subjective individual values, not top-down planing. The students addressed these ideas from different perspectives (local utility, energy/water nexus, and water and food trade); each choose one essay to post here. Please tell them what they got right or wrong.

Amara Davila writes...

Don’t you just love the taste of bottled oil? You know, that nice thick, oil that’s been manufactured and has traveled long distances to get to your refrigerator.

Maybe not, but if you understand the concept of “embedded energy” or “energy footprints,” you’ll understand why drinking that nice cold bottle of Dasani water means you are essentially drinking all of the energy it took to get to your door. That’s the oil, embedded in the supply, from all stages of the life cycle. This includes manufacture, processing, transportation, extraction of materials, etc.

To expand on this yummy visual exercise, think of a sealed bottle of water. If you add up all the embedded energy, that clear, tasty water will transform itself into a bottle ¼ full of oil. Drinking a bottle of water is like using that amount of fossil fuels. The Pacific Institute estimates that the “total amount of energy required for every plastic bottle is equivalent, on average, to filling each plastic bottle ¼ full with oil.”

You probably never considered the energy used to make and transport the products that you buy. Most Americans don’t. We tend not to think about the energy web, or what I refer to as the water-energy nexus for consumer goods.

Granted this energy is “invisible”, making it harder to think about but it’s there and it’s not going away. Perhaps it’s time for us to ask uncomfortable questions. Like, “Why am I paying 10,000 times more for bottled water than the higher quality stuff that flows right from my tap?” People complain about water rates yet will spend hundred of dollars on Poland Spring Water, pay for bottle tax and then pay one way or another for disposal.

According to the National Resources Defense Council, at least 54 percent of all American’s drink bottled water. That’s 54 percent of us chugging away at nice lukewarm oil. It took 3 liters of water to produce 1 liter of bottled water. Wait a second that calculus means it requires more water to produce the bottle than the water that’s actually in it?

Now let’s look at this embedded energy on a larger scale. If we take the consumption of bottled water in the United States, which is estimated at more than 33 billion liters, the energy required to produce all those bottles is equivalent to 32-54 million barrels of oil. That just seems absurd.

I know what some people are thinking, “What about places where water is unsafe to drink?” Bottled water can be useful in cities and countries around the world where tap water might pose health risks to vulnerable consumers. But why is your water unsafe? The UN General Assembly declared this past July that access to clean drinking water is a human right. Maybe it’s time we started getting everyday people involved in this dialogue. Move over politicians, engineers and advocates. Cities need to encourage citizens to ask these questions and they need to be aware of where their water comes from.

Let’s go back to the idea of a water-energy nexus. It’s a fancier way of saying everything (all energy) is intricately connected. If bottled water is the only solution, which in some places it is, then we need to start looking at how buying that bottled water affects someone on the other side of the world. I’m not proposing a ban on bottled water, well maybe I am, but I’ll compromise. This web of energy and water use needs to be balanced and when we produce and consume bottled water, the scales are tipped; unless we decide to give in exchange for our bottled water consumption. I call this the balancing of equities in the water energy nexus. A possible solution may be that we give to poorer areas when we buy bottled water by means of bottle tax. This would be a solution at the federal level. But we may even be able to convince large corporations like Nestle and Coca-Cola to donate, for example, every penny for every bottle purchased to an NGO or a township in an area where water is scarce or access to potable water is limited. It’s a small price to pay for a resource that humans simply can’t live without.

The consumer should be conscious of their choices and understand their implications. Thinking about embedded energy in products can shift how we think as consumers and the decisions we make. But what’s even more powerful is when we’re given the tools to go out and do something or even say something about where our products, and ultimately where our water comes from. As consumers we have the power of choice, and those choices have impacts.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

While I agree with you that there's a lot of waste involved in bottled water, I think you have to take into consideration the convenience factor. Folks aren't paying for higher quality water necessarily but just for the convenience of the water at hand. I've tried to wean my wife off bottled water, but I've got to admit when I'm on a run and I don't have any water at hand that bottled water dispensary sure is tempting ... she's had more success in getting me to drink bottled water than the reverse. Also, your example of 1/3rd oil is a bit overdone, after all, most of the energy used in making that bottle of water in the factory is from sources other tan oil--oil isn't used for electricity generation in thevUS in any location outside of Hawaii, for example--though of course the plastic comes from oil (or nat gas).