One of the first things a Santa Fe visitor is told upon setting foot in the high desert is, “Drink water. Lots of it.”
So they grab a bottle of Dasani or Arrowhead or Fuji and trek through the adobe jungle. Locals, too, are attached to their water, whether it’s a cool bottle snatched after yoga class or a plastic-wrapped stash of half-pints under the sink. Extra hydration is necessary at 7,000 feet, so to the bottle it is—because the best way to make sure you’re drinking it is to always have it with you.
But is there a better solution? Mounting evidence suggests bottled water—between the waste produced by the bottles and the energy consumed to produce and transport it—is a considerable threat to the environment. Green-minded Santa Feans have been trying to find alternatives to plastic bottles, but the alternatives are few—and raise environmental questions of their own.
Foremost, national statistics estimate that as little as 17 percent of all plastic water bottles in the US are recycled.
New Mexico’s figures are even lower. According to the New Mexico Recycling Coalition, the state recycles only 11 percent of its recyclable materials. To reduce plastic bottle waste, many turn to reverse-osmosis (RO)-purified water, available from bulk vending machines at virtually every supermarket in Santa Fe.
While filling up a reusable jug is effective in reducing plastic bottle waste, it can be harmful to the desert’s diminished water resources. A little-known fact about the RO process is that, for each gallon of purified water produced, one to three gallons of water are wasted; some estimates put that number closer to 11 gallons. As the fine membranes in an RO system cleanse water of contaminants, the system also flushes out large amounts of water along with those contaminants.
Audrey Jenkins, a water treatment specialist at Santa Fe By Design, further suggests that while the RO process removes contaminants, it also removes water’s natural nutrients.
“Have you ever heard of a stream that was reverse osmosis? We’re eating natural vegetables–shouldn’t we be drinking natural water?” she asks.
Santa Fe By Design, which markets a variety of water filtration systems, handed out 3,100 bideogradable corn cups of filtered Santa Fe tap water at the July 4 Pancakes on the Plaza. She says she also was in negotiations with the City of Santa Fe to install City Hall to install point-of-use filters in City Hall sinks and water fountains, but says the idea was eventually shot down for fear that it would give the impression that Santa Fe water was unsuitable for drinking.
Jenkins insists her desire to filter Santa Fe’s water was not an implication that it’s undrinkable; on the contrary, she wants to urge people to drink it more. “If we could enhance Santa Fe water by filtering it in City Hall, we could start a trend of people abandoning bottled water,” she says. “We need to be the change.”
While that change hasn’t come in the form of point-of-use filters in City Hall, it has reached city government buildings. Pursuant to an anti-bottled water resolution he signed at the US Conference of Mayors on June 24, and at the suggestion of Councilor Chris Calvert, Mayor David Coss unofficially “banned” bottled water from city council meetings.
“It was more of a verbal commitment not to use bottles at meetings,” City spokeswoman Laura Banish says. “It’s more environmentally friendly, and Santa Fe has such good drinking water,” she says, noting that city employees can often be seen filling up reusable bottles at water fountains.
Councilor Chris Calvert says his proposal to eliminate bottled water from Council meetings was similarly motivated. “If we’re saying city water is good water, why aren’t we drinking it? It sends the wrong signal if we’re drinking bottled water in a public forum. People may have issues with the taste, but in a blind taste test, I think they wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between bottled water and tap water. But that’s just my cynical self.” Calvert continues, “We’re supposed to be leading by example, and here’s a good, easy chance.”