Bottled water has a somewhat controversial reputation in Michigan. For years, a debate has raged about the bottling and selling of the state’s water, with ongoing organizing by groups across the state in response to plans to expand water pumping and a debate in the courts and legislature over regulations.
Now, a new company is operating out of Grand Rapids called Boxed Water Is Better that bills itself as “part sustainable water company, part art project, part philanthropic project” that claims to offer a better alternative to bottled water.
It’s gotten a lot of hype in the media, but is it really better for the environment?
On its website, the company touts the fact that its containers are recyclable. But, you can’t recycle them in the Grand Rapids area. The containers are produced from trees in certified, sustainably managed forests and they take less energy to be produced–and shipped–than plastic bottles used by the rest of the industry. Moreover, the company gives 20% of its profits to “world water relief foundations” and “reforestation foundations” to offset the environmental impacts of its products. A lot of companies do that–Nestle gives money, Coca-Cola gives money–it’s just a way of diverting attention from the underlying problem of privatizing water.
Like most bottled water companies, Boxed Water Is Better relies on imported water, in this case it’s “carbon-filtered, purified water from Minnesota”–that means a lot of resources wasted on transportation. The company discloses that tap water is better for the earth but they say that they are offering a “better” alternative in a growing market for packaged water.
The problem is that producing such a product ultimately legitimizes the demand and makes people think that packaged water is necessary. Maybe it’s slightly better than buying water from Coca-Cola or Nestle, but in the end it’s still promoting a destructive industry.
Bottled water costs more, it’s typically no safer, and it’s less regulated than tap water. Moreover, environmental organizations and human rights activists have argued that access to safe water will be one of the pivotal issues of the 21st century. As water is privatized and bottlers move in, aquifers are dried up and water is diverted elsewhere–raising the possibility that access to water will be based on one’s ability to pay. At the same time, confidence in municipal water systems declines–so does their ability to be maintained.