Message in a bottle

Joanna van gruisen | Updated on August 22, 2014

The wasteland Birds and fish end up eating plastic dumped in the waterNagara Gopal

Can a hotelier escape the bottled water trap?

When we took the step from biologist and wildlife photographer to hoteliers, Raghu (Chundawat) and I took with us our environmental ethic. We wanted to keep our carbon footprint as neutral or low as possible and aimed to provide comfort and indulgence without the waste of luxury. Local materials, solar energy and minimal reliance on concrete and steel were key features of this. A crucial aspect on which I was determined not to compromise was the plastic water bottle. No Bisleri! “You can’t run a hotel without offering bottled water” I was told — initially, even by Raghu. But my foot was hard down on this one. It has been years since I bought bottled water, there was no way I’d add to the plastic bottle mountain again.

In India, bottled water is presented as a life-saving alternative to unsafe municipal or local water supplies; in many countries it is a recent fashion. However, everywhere, it has been growing exponentially over the last couple of decades. In America alone, they’ve calculated that one year’s discarded bottles stacked end to end would reach the moon and back nearly fifteen times over! Consumption in India too is increasing (40-50 per cent per year) and already it’s up to almost half a billion litres annually. Only a small percentage (under 13 per cent) is recycled and plastic is 100 per cent non-biodegradable. Can we, or the planet, really afford this?

Bottled water can cost 10,000 times more than tap water. Washington-based Earth Policy Institute estimates that over 50 million barrels of oil are used annually to pump, process, transport and refrigerate bottles. And for every litre you drink, three to five litres of water have been used to make the bottle. About 2,500,000 tons of carbon dioxide is produced yearly in manufacturing the bottles; transportation creates even more CO{-2}.

All that we produce remains with us — in landfills and in the ocean. One ‘conservative estimate’ reckons that our oceans already contain 157.5 million tons of plastic. The United Nations Environment Programme estimates that 46,000 pieces float in every single square mile of the sea — worldwide. There are floating garbage patches, most notably in the North Pacific, where plastic outweighs plankton by six to one. Inevitably birds, fish and creatures of the sea eat this, with the result that in that area alone 100 million marine mammals and turtles die every year and 70-100 per cent of the bird population is affected. No longer can we hope to find organic fish. We too eat plastic through the fish. (Watch The Midway Pollution Disaster on Youtube.com.)

So install filters and carry reusable bottles filled from home. Most of the bottled water is merely filtered tap water anyway, so no different from freshly purified home water; in fact, rather less healthy when you consider it may have sat simmering in plastic on a shelf for six months. At our Sarai, we installed a good RO/UV filtration system within sight of the guest area. One hand is enough to count the number of guests who have questioned the origins of the water. Happily the naysayers were proved wrong — hotels can run without bottled water. Raghu and I are back to consensus.

(Joanna van gruisen is a wildlife photographer, conservationist and hotelier based near Panna Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh)

Published on February 07, 2014

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