puerto rico: a case for cleaner water.

The water has been off for two days now.  We woke up in the beautiful country house we are staying in, surrounded by tropical forests and the cacophony of early morning rooster crows to find that the faucet at the sink was hissing air and nothing more.  We planned to be gone all day and hoped for running water on our return.  Later, when the kids came back from a long day at the beach expecting showers to wash off that mix of sunscreen and caked-on sand, there was still nothing flowing.  First world problem, right?

It’s not until the water is randomly shut down that you begin to notice just how pivotal it is to your well-being.  As a Californian, this is an important lesson.  I’ve lived most of my life in a draught prone state, but can’t remember a time when the water randomly and for no good reason, quit flowing.

Ordinarily, I’m allergic to dish-washing, but on a day with no water, I’m mad to get the kitchen cleaned.  And I really want to wash my hands. Badly.

I survey our reserves.  We have a few gallons of clean water in plastic jugs that we picked up at the store the other day.  We’re living in a pretty remote spot and it’s a long and winding narrow road that connects us with the highway.  Getting to the store for more water would take an hour.  We need to reserve what we have for drinking and cooking, with scant allowances for the inevitable brushing of teeth and light soaping before dinner.  Showers are off the agenda.

Then I notice the bone-yard of empty plastic water jugs on the floor by the back door.  I haven’t been very good about taking the recycling out, so there are about eight gallon-sized empties accumulated there.  My stockpile seems brazen and shameless, given my general aversion to plastics.  Did we really burn through that many bottles of water this week?  It’s quite a load, and then I realize that my thoughtful separation of recycling from garbage is specious and done of pure habit.  There’s no recycling here.

Whenever I travel, purified water in plastic bottles is the norm, which is probably true for most people when traveling far from home.  On youthful adventures, we may supplant much of our fluid consumption with more inebriating local beverages, but still there are the inevitable water bottles we pick up with meals and for early morning rehydration.   We tend to not trust water in far-flung eating establishments, and in many parts of the world when you ask for water the assumption is that it will be decanted from a plastic bottle.  You pick up bottles of water with ease.  They are ubiquitous.  You can grab one at a corner market, along the highway from one of the venders approaching cars at red lights or maybe through the window of a stopped train.  Maybe you travel with something to refill, but refill from where?  Often it is from a gallon jug that was purchased to be left back at the hotel to refill from because you simply can’t fathom throwing out yet another single-serve bottle each time you get thirsty.

I contend that there may be an inherent distrust of water.  I don’t know this for certain.  The successful expansion of the bottled water industry based on cultivating doubt and using fear tactics is well documented, but I think there is more to it.  The job was perhaps an easy one because I think that humans are naturally skeptical of water in general, but particularly foreign water.  There may even be an evolutionary advantage to this.  Water can make people sick and spread disease; it’s a convenient solvent for poisons and toxic things like pesticides.  In modern times, our exotic vacations tend to be  short-lived and expensive affairs.  The last thing we want is to find that the person we asked if the water was safe didn’t understand us correctly leaving us laid up for the next several days recovering in some hotel room.

When my wife and I first started traveling we would buy bottles of water haphazardly here and there.  Of course, we would recycle them if that was an option, but in much of the world it is not.  So we would throw our plastic in the nearest trash can, feel a tinge of short-lived cursory passing guilt and move along.  Somewhere along the way we started a family and kept on traveling and now we are five.  Five who run and play and sweat and drink water by the trunk load.   Which is about how much we purchase with every trip to the supermarket.  And with every trip to the trashcan, a piece of me dies.

Here in the mountains of Puerto Rico, where we are shacked up for the summer, there is no recycling program.  We know of other regions of the island where there are recycling receptacles, but they are not incredibly common.  The island is a bit behind the times when it comes to waste disposal.  It’s said that 40-60 percent of the litter found around the island is plastic.  A stop by a rural beach or a drive down a backroad suggests that the problem is severe.  Plastics litter the beaches in perverse quantities.

I came across an old article in Recycling Today, which provides ‘News and Information for Recycling Professionals.’  It was published in 2001 and had the current plastic consumption for the island pegged at 1400 tons per day.  On an island measuring about 30 by 100 miles.  Let that simmer for a little bit.

Interestingly, it referenced a jump in plastics consumption that resulted from a period of water scarcity in the mid-1990s.  this precipitated (pun intended) an increase in the use of gallon jugs of water as well as disposable dinnerware.  Plastics consumption nearly doubled as a result of water insecurity.  Uncertain water supplies beget disposable spoons and forks.

Plastic pollution is a global problem. It was recently reported that around the world we now consume one million plastic bottles every minute.  In many parts of the world, we know that plastics are detrimental to the environment, and perhaps even to our own health, and we are lauded for our use of trendy new reusable water bottles, yet the disposable ones are still ubiquitous.

The water in our house came back on a couple days later.  I stockpiled a handful of those used gallon jugs to refill for use as washing water the next time the taps run dry.  Meantime, I’m going to trudge out to the trash can with my eight or so gallon-sized empties – about four days’ worth for my kids.  A thought occurs to me as I make for the door.  Water shortages are common in places like rural Puerto Rico and much of the world contends with access to sanitary water supplies.  In our battle against the ubiquity of plastics, we are up against formidable foes: convenience, complacency and a really powerful industry.  What if we just focused on ensuring that everyone on the planet had access to good clean pure-tasting water?

I’m tempted to see the plastics issue as a detractor.  It needs addressing, but taking it head on may be missing the point.  The bottled water industry captured a market largely by casting doubt on the cleanliness and safety our water supplies.  Reclaiming our water may be the most empowered way to resist the surge in plastic waste.





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