It’s time to stop buying bottled water

for Brooklyn Paper
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Charming, handsome, and homeless, the 25-year-old we’ll call Bruce and I were eating dinner at the small Manhattan shelter where I volunteer once a month. We were both enjoying the pasta provided by another volunteer, but only one of us was drinking a $3 bottle of water.

What?” I exclaimed when Bruce told me how much he had paid for the bottle he had bought earlier that day. “How can you possibly spend that much on water? How can anyone? Tap water is free!”

Bruce just started an $11-an-hour job in Brooklyn. He’s got to save up for a room, and taking out $3 chunks for a liquid that flows freely just doesn’t make sense to me. But to him? It is vital.

“This water is safe,” he said, picking up his bottle.

“So is water from the sink,” says I.

His friend, a young woman who is also in the workforce and also homeless (never assume that homeless equals not working) stood up for him.

“The water from the tap has all sorts of chemicals in it.”

“The water in bottles is tap water!” an older shelter guest chimed in, laughing heartily.

Bruce just shrugged.

“I got to stay healthy.”

So allow me, as a public service, to ask the questions that need answers, beginning with: Is bottled water really better for us than New York City tap water?

“In general, the municipal water supply of any given area has more rigorous environmental standards and controls than the water supplies used by private bottlers,” said Richard Murdocco, a columnist who writes on urban planning issues and has worked with environmental and housing groups.

What’s more, New York City’s water is not just any hometown’s H2O. It is a roaring, rushing paragon of purity, said Murdocco.

“The water supply is so pure that it went unfiltered for decades until federal law mandated New York City filter the water, a move city officials thought was unnecessary.”

So why are people afraid of it?

For starters, because bad news always gets more attention than — yawn — anything that is fine.

“Headlines [are] about bad tap water, especially in locations like Flint, Michigan,” said Jacob Hatch, author of the Hydration Anywhere blog. People remember fuzzy factoids about plastics and pipes and toxins and leaching, but, “In general, water quality is something people know little about,” said Hatch. With so much quasi-info floating around, we think we heard something terrible about something, not quite sure what, and we not only believe it’s true, we believe it’s going to kill us all right here, right now.

In point of fact, Hatch continued, studies show that “bottled water is not, on average, any cleaner or safer to drink than tap water.” Where bottled and tap are not equal is when it comes to polluting.

Producing a bottle of water actually uses about six times more water than is contained in the bottle itself. And then there’s the energy used to make the bottle, label the bottle, fill the bottle, transport the bottle (sometimes across entire oceans) and stock the bottle. Then there’s our energy we burn to schlep the bottle home.

What’s more, 80 percent of the 50 billion plastic water bottles purchased in the U.S. every year do not end up recycled. Off they go to landfill. (More schlepping).

“So if you need the convenience of a water bottle,” I said to Bruce, “or if you love that particular bottle, at least reuse it. Just fill it with more water tomorrow.”

Oh no, no, no, no, came the reply.

“Refill it and the plastic breaks down and gets into your blood.”

“That’s patently untrue,” says Michael Cervin, author of “Our World of Water: The Good, the Bad & and the Ugly of Earth’s Most Critical Resource,” and blogger at This World of Water.

If you are using the same bottle for years and years, Cervin said, then yes, it can start wearing out, the way Tupperware gets tired after 10 or 15 years. But refilling it for weeks on end is no threat to anyone’s health, so long as you wash the bottle out with soap and water from time to time. Remember, Cervin added, we’re not eating the bottle, “we’re merely using it as a vessel to consume a beverage.”

I didn’t have all this info at my fingertips at the shelter, but I did have some sheets of paper, so I taught Bruce and his friend how to make an origami cup the next time they’re thirsty and don’t want to spend $3.

Read Lenore Skenazy's column every Sunday morning on

Lenore Skenazy’s show “World’s Worst Mom” debute in January on the Discovery Life Channel. She is also author of Free-Range Kids.

Updated 5:59 pm, July 9, 2018
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Reasonable discourse

Ms.Me from Bay Ridge says:
First time I ever agreed with Lenore.
April 30, 2017, 6:56 am
Anonymous from Brooklyn says:
It's not the quality of the water at it's source that concerns people, it's what happens to the water when it's exposed to lead in the pipes. I think this site even reported on the lead content in many NYC public school water fountains and sinks. As a native New Yorker, I was raised on delicious water from the tap, but depending on the bldg in which you live, your pipes may make that an impossibility.
April 30, 2017, 8:25 am
J from Park Slope says:
I agree with the comment above. I work in a NYC public school and we have gotten several notices over the past couple of years regarding lead findings in the water. So unfortunately for now I am buying water bottles (at least for when I am at work ).
April 30, 2017, 10:10 am
Steven Rosner from Fresh Meadows,NY says:
Thank You!! I now feel vindicated,when I once screamed total"Bloody Murder",at a man,at a then Waldbaum"s supernarket,when;he did NOT have the money to purchase Poland Spring water. I would have gladly"springed",for his fruits/vegetables,his chopped-meat, his milk;if he needed baby fomula? Next time,I will be,even more explicit;in my opposition to such a totally STUPID purchase. The homeless man you interviewed,could been so much wiser,with his $3.00!! Publish this letter,if you wish to? I do NOT care,one way or the other. Sincerely,Steven Rosner Fresh Meadow,Queens Phone 1-718-454-9882 Cellular Phone 1-347-6749
April 30, 2017, 10:16 am
Henry Ford from Bay Ridge says:
Posting your phone number in an internet comment section is not the best idea.
April 30, 2017, 2:21 pm
Steven Rosner from Fresh Meadows says:
Mr.Ford is absolutely correct. It seem,as if,I was sending it,as a letter-to-editor. The details were NOT very clear. My wording could have been more civil,as well as. It appears,that other opinions expressed,do honor a decent code of civility. Sorry about "Stupid"
April 30, 2017, 4:55 pm
Matt from Greenpoint says:
Bottled water is neither environmentally friendly nor economical but there are lead concerns now and I don't think they ever reduced the chlorine level since Sandy. The taste is prominent in the tap water. And then there is fluoride, if they still use that.
Best if you can filter your own water with an under the counter unit or a Burkey type filter. But, not everyone can deal with that. So, bottled water is not going anywhere soon.
May 3, 2017, 8:42 pm

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