Little Plastic Water Bottles

The man reached out from his kayak, extending his arm trying to grab what he saw before him: the object of his desire.

It was not a safe situation, and he recognized the hazards. His kayak was sideways, pressed up against a recently fallen silver maple, perpendicular to the surprisingly strong current. He had seen not a few kayaks and canoes swamped in similar circumstances. With a slight dip in the upstream direction, his kayak could quickly fill with river water and sink, the river’s current forcing it down and under the log jam.

Still he reached out, off balance, stretching out across a wide expanse of floating surface debris held back by the fallen trees blocking the river’s flow. This log jam certainly wasn’t the biggest he’d encountered, but any blockage made the river harder to maneuver and a far less pleasant place to be.

Still here he was, reaching out.

The object of his desire? A floating little plastic Dasani water bottle. One of many little plastic bottles he had found on this particular trip downriver.

So here’s the question – one he had often asked himself on many, many other similar occasions: Why?

Why was the bottle here? Why was he here? Why does he do it? Just because it’s there? Why does he bother? Why face such risk for the carelessness of others?

Not long before, the man and his wife had found themselves watching a movie called “Tapped”.

A lot of the stuff in the movie the man already knew, but it brought it all together: all the irrationality – all the insanity – of drinking a little plastic bottle of water bottled and then trucked halfway across the country when there’s plenty of fresh, pure safe water available right in most folks’ hometowns.

This irrational approach to people drinking water from little plastic bottles was basically the reason he was currently risking swamping his craft in such a precarious situation on the Sangamon River.

Tapped started by telling the tale of the bottled water business. Water companies buying up cheap land and dropping wells anyplace freshwater can be found under the ground (it’s free for the taking, you know), pumping it out and putting it in tank trucks, and delivering it to plastic water bottling plants and then shipping the little plastic water bottles around the country.

This even while municipalities around the country pump their own fresh water out of the ground (or purify it from surface water), and make that water widely and cheaply available to local residents.

What’s even more ironic, the man thought, is that the industry advertises bottled water as “pure” and “fresh” leading those who consume it to believe that the water flowing out of their taps is somehow less pure and less safe than the water in little plastic bottles.

It isn’t. The entire bottled water industry has but one FDA inspector ensuring that their products are safe. And in the movie, she said she only works on bottled water industry inspections part time.

Municipal water supplies are monitored for safety several times per day. The movie told how the bottled water industry swears it’s not competing with municipal water or private water sources, yet they themselves perpetuate the myth that their water is somehow “superior” to what comes out of peoples’ municipal taps. This even though much bottled water is actually just purified tap water (which was safe water to begin with).

The movie also related the tale of the petrochemical industry: large oil refineries spewing toxic emissions and CO2 into the air to process crude fossil fuels into the little plastic bottles that contain the tapped water that is transported across the country. And many of these bottles contain BPA, a substance toxic to humans.

Finally, the man recalled, the movie told the story of the final resting place of carelessly discarded plastic.  A researcher walked along a beach littered with plastic refuse from the Pacific Ocean that stretched as far as the eye could see.

It got worse. The researcher had gone far out into the Pacific, near the now infamous “Garbage Island” of discarded plastic (nearly as big as Texas) to sample fish from deep in the ocean. And he found their little stomachs filled with the tiniest bits of – you guessed it – plastic. The same plastic, and essentially from the same source, that he now reached out to retrieve from the Sangamon River.

The man knew that some oh-so-fit people would surely whine: but bottled water is so much healthier than soda and the little plastic bottles make it so convenient!

True that. But it was scant consolation as his kayak sat perched in such a precarious situation, wedged sideways against the oncoming current while he worked to recover this healthful and convenience-minded person’s thoughtlessly discarded garbage.

So, the man thought, here’s another question: Why are people so seemingly unable to comprehend such obvious interconnections between their careless behavior and the health of our planet?  Even their own health?

A week or so later:

The man reached out with his hand grabber, extending his arm trying to reach what he saw before him: the object of his desire. It was not a safe situation, and he recognized the hazards.

He walked carefully along a busily traveled two-lane highway in the narrow stretch of grass and ditch between cornfield and pavement, eyes darting down and around and up again, fully loaded Freightliners roaring a few feet past at 60 miles an hour. He had heard of drivers casually chatting – or worse, texting – on their smart phones veering off the road, killing innocent cyclists. He’d seen huge semi trucks overturned along the highway, their overworked drivers falling asleep at the wheel.

Still, he reached out, stretched out. The object of his desire? A little plastic Dasani water bottle. One of many he had found on this particular stretch of highway.

Appeared as Notes from the River, Mahomet Citizen, April 23, 2015, by Scott Hays

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