Wednesday, June 2, 2010

I don’t drink bottled water, do I?

First a story…

Way back in 2001, I attended a conference in Costa Mesa, California. In order to save some money, and to meet new folks, I used the conference website to find a roommate for the conference. My roommate was from India, but had done had earned his Ph.D. in the States several years earlier. He’d not been back to the US in about a decade.

2001 was at the height of the rolling blackouts. In the years since Anil had been in the US, bottled water had become popular too. Our hotel room offered bottled water for a few dollars per liter. Though I didn’t know Anil until we met at the conference, I could easily tell he was put off by certain things he was seeing.

He asked me, “Don, what’s happened to the infrastructure in this country?” I asked him what he meant, and he said that when he was here in the early 1990s, we didn’t need bottled water and the electricity was very reliable. Indeed, I thought. I struggled to come up with an answer grounded not in issues of scarcity, but rather in issues of market manipulation. Americans, it seemed to me, were basically duped.

I didn’t wish to count myself among the ranks of the duped, and I think there are negative consequences of bottled water. In my holier than thou way, I’ve rarely bought or had bottled water. Or have I?

I never buy and only very rarely consume what we think of as bottled water, but I do buy and consume other bottled (and canned) liquids that are mostly water. The most common is diet cola – it’s my caffeine delivery system and I drink a lot of it – the equivalent of four cans a day is not unusual for me. Some of it comes from cans, but most of it comes from 2 liter plastic bottles.

The cola is bottled not too far away, and I return the bottles and cans for recycling (of course!). That eases my conscience somewhat, but if I think I’m better than those bottled water drinkers because my water is carbonated and caffeinated, well, I think I’m fooling myself.

I also enjoy a certain class of beverages made with hops and barley and such. For the beer, I like to try different varieties, some from near and some from far. Fortunately, there’s some great beer made in Upstate New York, so I can improve my carbon footprint by buying local and liking it!

I want to reduce the carbon footprint of my beverage habits – that means replacing at least some of the cola with tap water and maybe cleaning up the home-brewing supplies.

Perhaps most important is tracking the consumption – if you want to change something, a common successful step is knowing what you’re doing right now. People who lose weight and keep it off, for one example, are much more likely to weigh themselves regularly than people who don’t. Another example is having the electric meter for a household in an obvious place makes electricity use drop substantially. So, I’ll keep a running tally and see if I can shrink the footprint of what I drink. And maybe think about weighing myself more regularly too.

I’m unsure if we’ll ever end up in the situation Anil feared we were in when he returned to the US after a decade away and saw those rolling blackouts and the new prevalence of bottled water. I don’t like the scare tactics that can go along with such a vision, and I think there’s genuine reason to hope that we won't go there. I’ll be personally better off avoiding the high dose of diet cola I now consume. If I can bring myself to get my brewing supplies cleaned up and back in operation after a decade gathering dust, I’ll be drinking better, cheaper, lower carbon footprint beer (but please don’t expect me to revive a lousy old refrigerator to store it in). That all sounds much cheerier…

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