April 22nd is Earth Day and while searching our recent customer profiles for an Earth friendly candidate for a feature post, we were delighted to find Spring to the Tap ’ s founder, Austin Schuver. Spring to the Tap started as a homegrown advocacy and has since become an established nonprofit charity which encourages consuming tap water as smart and eco-conscious alternative to bottled. We posed a few questions about Spring to the Tap and were blown away not only by the story, but the young man behind the movement.
Austin Schuver who while still attending high school, exhibits expert level knowledge, maturity, and a passion for social and environmental changes which transcends some of the most ambitious activists out there. This is really more of an essay than a mere blog post so DesignAShirt is publishing this incredible Q & A session in its entirety. We thank Austin for his generous insights and truly hope to help promote the ideals put forth by Spring to the Tap.
Q: What was the motivation behind organizing Spring to the Tap?
Austin Schuver- Spring to the Tap grew out of a school service project. The “Impact Project” is an assignment given to eighth grade students at Annie Wright Middle School to complete before they graduate. Four years ago I was at the end of my eighth grade year tasked with the project for which directions sounded simple enough: make a difference in your community. I felt that the impact of volunteering for a few hours was not substantial enough to make a real difference, so I tried to think of ways I could do my project differently.
After multiple weeks of indecision, I saw the short video called “The Story of Bottled Water” which shows the issues surrounding bottled water from a simple yet multifaceted perspective. This sparked an interest that has led to a social-environmental awareness campaign in my hometown of Enumclaw, Washington that has evolved into a 501(c)(3) nonprofit charitable organization called Spring to the Tap.
Q: How did bottled water popularity rise to the level of threatening the environment?
A.S.- In short, popularity rose because bottled water is a perfect fit for the social times we find ourselves in today. It is fast, convenient, relatively cheap, easy to carry, and in all of our busy lifestyles, it is easy to throw away and forget about after it has filled its basic need. In these ways and others, bottled water is a symbol for larger, and sometimes more pressing issues than we realize.
There are a lot of different ways to understand these issues. The following is the complicated answer for this question.
The major rise in popularity began in 1977 when the French bottled water brand Perrier launched a United States marketing campaign. Only two years later American sales of Perrier were up over 3,000 percent . The sparkling water brand grew as an alternative to alcoholic beverages and sugary sodas, but more importantly, Perrier ’ s popularity grew from mass marketing something now prevalent in the bottled water world, “exotic pristine-ity.”
Often, if marketed correctly, the image of a foreign brand (or even a domestic and merely convincingly “exotic” brand) conveys a sense of luxury. Additionally, their product (the water in this case) will often carry the connotation of immaculate purity. The biggest beneficiary of this factor today is the Fiji bottled water brand.
American companies soon saw that Perrier sold well in the United States. These companies also saw that at that time their own profits were nose-diving because consumers were becoming more health conscious (choosing to buy less soda) and they found that perfect product to fill that gap was bottled water.
This is when huge corporations like Pepsi and Coca-Cola entered the bottled water market with their Aquafina and Dasani brands respectively (notice even the names of domestic water brands are trying to imitate the idea of “exotic pristine-ity”). These massive corporations wanted to make a huge splash in the bottled water market, where they saw the potential for enormous profits, so they launched massive marketing and advertising campaigns around their bottled water brands.
Bottled water is a perfect exemplification of our susceptibility to advertising and marketing. If you think about it, water is a completely blank, bland entity in its own right. Although it has a deep meaning to each of us as individuals and to our society and the entire world as a whole, it is not novel to any of us. There is nothing new or exciting about water. It is so ingrained in our lives that we often think nothing of it. On top of that, there is virtually no value added to water by the bottled water companies, so how did these corporations find ways to keep the bottles flowing off of store shelves?
They did it by pouring a lot of resources into advertising and they did it for two reasons.
First, because their product is water, just plain old water. No matter how they want to sell it to you, if we ’ re talking about bottled water the product is always just water. Second, almost every single person in the United States has access to some of the safest tap water in the world. This means that the companies had to “ manufacture demand ” in a sense, or convince people that bottled water is better than the tap water that they were already regularly consuming.
The best advertisers in the world who work for corporations like Nestle, Pepsi, and Coca-Cola with millions to spend on mass media campaigns, understand that advertising is a matter of appealing to our emotions. They understood that the most effective advertising sells a projection of sex, fear, wealth, or power in association with their product.
The bottled water companies ran multitudes of ads that played on our basic desires for happiness, love, a sense of coolness and belonging, and eventually our choice of bottled water became, subconsciously, a status symbol that reflected our deepest desires.
This all worked. Today bottled water outsells milk, beer, and soda . There was one other factor that also helped vaunt the image of bottled water. That is that bottled water companies do not face the same standards of quality or transparency as municipal tap water systems .
While our public water systems are required to immediately report any potential violations of stringent testing regulations to the public, state, and federal government s, bottled water companies have lax standards and no requirement to report to the state government, federal government, or consumers, even when violations are found. With these lopsided rules it is easy for the bottled water companies to hide behind a veil of purity and convince the public that tap water is worse than bottled water.
The second part: why does the popularity of bottled water threaten the environment? That is a really interesting question because there are so many different ways that bottled water undermines our sustainability as a human species, in ways we don ’ t usually consider (which is the biggest reason why we have a problem). The ubiquity and total acceptance of bottled water in our culture has the greatest meaning for our larger efforts to fix some of biggest issues present in our society and environment today.
The biggest reason that bottled water has risen to the level of harming the environment is due to the fact that nine and a half times out of ten it can be avoided. Blind taste test across the country show that we cannot taste a difference between bottled and tap water (and a simple home filter can remedy poor tasting water). Chemical analyses and regulation requirements show that bottled water is not safer than tap water. Over a year bottled water can cost hundreds to thousands of dollars more than tap water. And tap water has a minuscule environmental footprint. (That ’ s not to say that bottled water doesn ’ t have a place. It is certainly necessary in some emergency situations for example.)
All these reasons cause us to advocate for everyone to choose tap water as a simple and easy way to benefit the environment, save your wallet, protect your health, and support our local communities.
The main reason that bottled water is harmful to the environment is due to the plastic bottle. That bottle is derived from oil and natural gas, and when these are refined to make plastic products they have to be combined with many other chemical additives. Neither mankind nor mother nature can effectively recycle a product made from refined oil or natural gas plus additives. This means that plastics do not biodegrade.
The natural mechanisms mother nature uses, like fungi and bacteria, will not decompose plastic into its component chemical parts. In a way, plastics last forever. Plastics only physically or mechanically degrade, breaking into smaller and smaller pieces slowly over time. The main problems with the environmental safety of plastics are all exacerbated by the short life-span of single use plastics.
The first problem is the fact that there is no good way to dispose of used plastic. Plastics do not recycle in the sense that we are led to believe they do. The best materials for recycling are glass, aluminum, and steel because they can all be melted down to a pure form to remove contaminants and recast into a new product. Plastic, on the other hand, melts at a much lower temperature which does not allow it to shed off contaminants.
In addition, there are thousands of combinations of chemicals that make up plastics, while consumers and disposal processes introduce new contaminants and the sorting and machinery requires that post-consumer plastics meet specific requirements to be recycled.
Even the basic makeup of plastics determines that plastic that does go through a recycling program, melted and combined with other plastics, is weaker than virgin plastic. This makes post-consumer plastics recycling difficult, labor intensive, and costly, usually outweighing the cost of using virgin plastic .
This is why only nine percent of the total plastic waste generated in 2012 was recovered for recycling (this is different than the commonly cited roughly 40% “ recycled ” rate, which is actually just the percentage collected, not recovered and recycled). We typically assume (I know I used to) that, because of the neat triangle of chasing arrows, all recycling is a closed loop process. Yet by one estimate, using data from the plastics industry, there is about a 2.6% chance that any one plastic PET bottle is successfully recycled into another new PET bottle, let alone continuously recycled in a perfect loop.
This indication of a deeply flawed system is compounded because most of our “ recycled ” plastic gets shipped overseas ( half is shipped to China , fill ing empty container ships that transported our countless consumer goods from across the Pacific) to countries with virtually no environmental or labor regulations, to be dumped and possibly made into cheap plastic lumber, carpeting, or other cheap down-cycled products which cannot be recycled again.
The first problem is that there is no good way to get rid of plastics, they last forever. This gives way to the second problem, which is that stray plastic harms the environment. Plastic debris causes dire environmental problems in addition to being an eyesore.
Once widely thought of as biologically inert, plastics actually actively leach and absorb different chemicals. In the environment, and sometimes in the containers we use them for, they can leach chemicals like BPA or phthalates . Plastics weaken and the additives that were added during the process to make the plastic soft or rigid or flexible or colored start to leach out.
In addition plastics also attract and absorb other chemicals present in the environment which have similar makeups. This means that plastic particles can harbor concentrations of persistent organic pollutants like PCBs or pesticides thousands of times more acute than present in the surrounding environment.
Because they do not biodegrade, plastics are made smaller by UV degradation, tidal action, and the natural processes of countless marine organisms, slowly becoming mircoplastics.
These plastic bits now outweigh plankton in the ocean gyres, some featuring about 50 times more plastic than plankton, with researchers expecting the number to be over a hundred times some places.
In 2006, UNESCO estimated that 46,000 pieces of plastic float in every square mile of ocean, killing more than a million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals each year. This chemically active debris is especially potent because it can be found in various shapes and sizes and colors in the environment. Plastics are readily consumed, for example, bottle caps are a favorite of albatross, and microplastics are ingested by many species, from barnacles and corals to trout and even whales.
Organisms that ingest plastic risk filling their stomach with sharp nonnutritive trash which can occupy needed space in their stomachs and leach toxins later stored in their fat. These pollutants (coming from what the plastic collects) builds up in the bodies of top level predators, including ourselves, through a process called biomagnification.
(For more insight into plastics’ impact on society and a lot of interesting background information I would encourage you to read Plastic Ocean by Captain Charles Moore. It explains a lot of this content in detail.)
We are not trained as consumers to consider a product at every stage of its life cycle. For bottled water, like other products, we must consider the energy and resources used in oil extraction, and pellet production for bottle manufacturing and molding, then the water extraction, in addition to the filling, labeling, and sealing of bottles, and after all of that the collection and disposal for processing and landfilling, or recycling, or incineration. And between the major stages the cost of transportation adds to the total energy and resource consumption of bottled water.
Municipal water systems often utilize the power of gravity, as a result producing tap water uses up to 2,000 times less energy t han producing bottled water. The plastic bottled water bottles consumed by Americans in 2006 alone too k approximately 17 million barrels of oil ; enough oil to fuel one million cars for an entire year.
The mass extraction of water from our local, and often times public, sources of fresh water has the ability to severely compromise community water systems. These and other industrial operations negatively affect localities.
Oil extraction operations, refineries, other plastic related industries, not to mention landfills, or incineration plants, have a harmful effect on the air, water, and general quality of life in communities around the world. In bottled water related industries this is not limited to the sometimes aggressive and dubious extraction of water. It is a side of the consumer industry we are often shielded from unless we happen to live near one of these operations.
Research also suggests that processing bottled water uses three times as much water as is sold inside the bottle itself. But the largest issues surrounding water has to do with social aspects of privatizing water.
Q: What is meant by privatization of water?
A.S.- There are two main forms of water privatization. Both forms can have dire effects on local communities.
The first is mass extraction from a water source. There are still states, provinces, and other areas around the world that lack sound groundwater regulations. This means that in many cases large corporations can pump out as much water as they want, for almost nothing. In other situations, mega-corporations like Nestle rush into small towns offering jobs, wealth, and general prosperity in exchange for the right to the community ’ s water. Before or after a deal is reached their large legal departments can afford to fight any opposition, often overwhelming local communities.
The other form of privatization is of entire municipal systems. A city looking to cut costs can privatize its water service to a privately owned company. In one case, after the city of Indianapolis contracted Veolia to handle their water department, customer complaints doubled, water quality sank, and multiple residents sued about overcharging, all of which led to an investigation by the State of Indiana and Veolia lost the contract.
Also of note is that in many countries public water systems and infrastructure are underdeveloped, and millions of people do not have access to clean water. The scarcity of fresh water on the planet will only continue to worsen, and a future where only the elite members of society can afford access to this basic human right is conceivable, partly because it is already happening.
In areas of Mexico for example, public water is unreliable. The wealthy can afford to circumvent public systems and purchase bottled or privatized water. These private water dealings directly undermine the public system. And as long as those with money can buy their way out of public services, the systems that provide clean water to everyone will suffer, and the inequality of society is heightened. Unfortunately, this is not too unlike what is happening in parts of the United States today, where water may become blue gold that only the wealthy can afford.
Q: What are some of the dangers introduced when drinking bottled water versus tap water?
A.S.- Potential dangers involve bottled water, and plastics’ tendency in general , to leach chemicals widely known to disrupt the endocrine system. Two of the more concerning chemicals, phthalates and BPA, have be found in the bodies of around 90% of Americans, and are classified as endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs).
BPA leaches from polycarbonate plastic used in blue five gallon reusable plastic containers, some plastic reusable water bottles, and aluminum can liners (many products that advertise as “BPA free” instead use the chemical BPS which some studies have shown to be worse than BPA). And phthalates can leach from many plastics and other materials including PET used in bottled water. EDCs have been linked to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, breast and prostate cancer, thyroid dysfunction, developmental and reproductive problems, and more.
Many studies support a “growing body of evidence” that s uggests that these chemicals can leach out of many kinds of plastics (especially if the material is stressed, or exposed to sunlight or heat). However, right now there is no true scientific consensus about the effect that exposure from bottled water would have on our hormones.
But scientists do know that endocrine disrupting chemicals can act after long periods of time (making the cause hard to pinpoint) as hormone triggers that can cause long-term health effects even with low dose exposure. They have the potential to affect children the most because their biological systems are still developing and they can accumulate more exposure over their lifetime (which is why BPA is banned in sippy cups).
Q: What do you think is the biggest reason people choose bottled water over a reusable sports bottle or tumbler?
A.S.- There are two big reasons. One is perceived convenience. A lot of people would rather pay to get a case of bottled water while they are at the store and grab one to go when they leave home, or just buy a bottle when they are out and about, rather than have to remember to bring or refill their own bottle. To me, this behavior is ludicrously backwards. What is more convenient than having fresh water literally piped to your home, or available for free in restaurants, street corners, or rest stops, all across the country? (Granted, water fountains and other alternatives are not as common as they used to be.)
If you compare buying bottled water to refilling a reusable bottle it only takes five to ten fill-ups for the cost of a reusable bottle to pay off. In fact, you could fill up a reusable bottle for nine years and eight months with tap water before the cost would equal the average price of bottled water. Sometimes it can be hard to remember, but all we have to do is bring a reusable bottle when we leave home, or just keep one in our car or on our bike, and there are places to refill almost wherever we go.
Q: Do you think that some of the reason for the growth in the consumption of bottled water is fear of contamination from public fountains, if so, how this fear can be combatted?
A.S.- The second reason I would say that people choose bottled water over a reusable bottle is fear of the safety of tap water or fountains. About 47% of people c hoose bottled water because they are concerned about the safety of tap water, and the industry profits from this increasingly poor perception of municipal water. What they don ’ t know is that about the same percentage, about 40-45% of bottled water is packaged tap water .
All of the factors I mention above, including advertising, do influence our perception of tap water and drinking fountains, and often we don ’ t even realize it. As a result, public drinking fountains and tap water is being taken for granted and as our values shift public fountains are disappearing and falling into disrepair.
The action of purchasing bottled water as a response to a degraded perception of tap wat er exemplifies the concept of “inverted quarantine.” Th is is where an individual would act to protect him or herself from a perceived environmental threat, in this case buying bottled water as to not have to drink the “harmful” tap water.
This phenomenon weakens civic engagement and contributes to a decline in public water infrastructure. If the public regularly chooses private goods over public ones, then the support and market for public systems declines. This causes public services to be cut or to decline in quality, of course only adding to the mistrust of the public services, and further accelerating the demand for private services, or bottled water. This creates and continues a downward spiral of the quality of public water systems, and as this theory would argue, a total decline of public services and government trust altogether.
So even though choosing bottled water may seem fairly innocuous, on a larger scale it can create major societal issues which have greater implications for basic equality.
Back to the question: any time you get a large number of people using the same public space or equipment, especially in places like schools, there is going to be concern and a risk for exposure to unhealthy surfaces.
Old fountains have gotten a bad rap for being seemingly constantly teeming with mucus and germs, but with modern drinking fountains that risk is virtually eliminated. In properly designed fountains the water never touches the spigot and comes out at an angle that prevents cross contamination.
New fountains and refilling stations feature downward flowing water for refilling bottles which also help with cleanliness. Letting the water run for a few seconds in any fountain will allow the water ’ s chlorination to remove harmful bacteria from surfaces that it may touch.
If someone still has worries about the safety of drinking tap water advise them to install a home water filter, or purchase a reusable bottle with a filter, as both are still less expensive, safer, and better for the environment than bottled water.
Q: In business settings and meetings, oftentimes clients and customers are offered water, usually bottled. What do you feel is a more sustainable solution?
A.S.- I ’ ve been in meetings where the hosts have offered bottled water and meetings where they have offered tap water. I would say that serving tap water gives a better overall impression. Walking in the meeting room and being offered cold water with ice in glass pitchers and personal glasses is very appealing.
This adds a touch of thoughtfulness, professionalism, a certain elegance, and it plain looks and tastes better than drinking out of a flimsy plastic bottle lazily placed around the table featuring another company ’ s logo.
Q: What is Spring to the Tap planning for the future?
A.S.- Spring to the Tap ’ s current project is partnering with a local bronze sculptor who will be designing and creating a custom drinking water fountain to be installed in downtown Enumclaw in the summer of 2016.
We also have other plans which center around our purpose to raise awareness, create alternatives, and sustain action in advocacy of tap water. This includes providing more educational opportunities, retrofitting and repairing existing fountains, and finding other exciting ways to get people to Spring to the Tap !
Q: What purpose will your custom tees serve for Spring to the Tap?
A.S.- Our first order of custom t-shirts from DesignAShirt.com will be worn by team members especially for local events to raise awareness of the issues surrounding bottled water and tap water.
Later, we plan on launching an online campaign selling shirts to support the mission of the nonprofit as well as fundraise and build a base of awareness in our community and beyond. The phrase we ’ re using on the t-shirts represents the simplicity of our message: think global, drink Local.