Turn on the Tap, Please

by Liz Caskey on February 8, 2011

I love the summer heat. It makes me thirsty. Really thirsty. I drink at least 2-3 liters of water daily–from the tap. I don’t do mineral water anymore. I choose tap water, normally passed through my trusty old Brita filter. I have decided to avoid buying bottled water indefinitely for my own consumption. The business behind bottled water (yes, it’s a business), in particular passing it off as better and purer, is simply not vibing with me. Think about it, one of our basic rights as human beings on this earth is to have clean drinking water available. If not, we die. It’s that simple. How can a price be put on that?

Let’s explore a little bit what’s behind bottled mineral water because when I discovered the truth, it was quite shocking and I couldn’t choose to just act of ignorant of the truth. First, let’s look at why we drink mineral water. Is it really even necessary (considering in my case that Chile that tap water is potable)? Does it have a better flavor? Is is cleaner or healthier? I would say maybe, but not necessarily. First and foremost,  it should be understood that there are types of bottled water that take local tap water and filter them, passing them off through marketing as “mineral” water. In fact, only a small percentage of “mineral” water actually hails from certified mineral water sources like underground springs, in Chile, from glacial or snow run-off. A completely different issue is the water’s taste. Funny enough, in blind taste tests in the US, tap water was often chosen as having a better taste. I would second that tap water here tastes pretty good. Then what is creating the demand for bottled water in Chile, and what is allowed to be sold as agua mineral here? Perceived necessity drives business…

Who, in good consciousness, is going to choose a water that has less flavor, is less sustainable, and downright wasteful as the plastic bottle pollutes the planet we live on. Is it even necessary to mention that that innocent bottle of water is thousands of times more expensive  than tap or home-filtered water? Get this, it’s even more expensive than filling up your car with gas. I am going to repeat this last statistic. Bottled water is thousands of times more costly than tap water. Some of you may be thinking, “Yeah Liz, big deal, that’s life”.

Hold on folks, let’s stop to think about this. What if we applied the same concept to food. Or air (which is the only “free” thing left in this world, in theory). It’s crazy. Think of the chain effect that happens when you buy that plastic bottle of water. First, thousands of liters of petroleum are used to produce those bottles each year. Then, it takes more oil fuel to transport and distribute them throughout Chile (and the world). When you buy it, paying thousands times more for this life-essential liquid, you drink it in 3 minutes, and toss that bottle into the trash. The garbage man comes, takes it to the landfill, and there it will stay for thousands of years. Or they burn it, creating toxic smoke to further pollute our precious air. Let’s say you drink two liters per day, as is recommended to keep your body humming. Imagine all that unnecessary trash in a year’s time–or a life time. Scary.

And just to open the discourse on this “emerging” topic here in Chile, why do they need to make you feel like a second class citizen for ordering tap water in restaurants? Did you know that today bottled water is the most profitable drink in eating institutions? Yes sir. More than alcohol. Although Chileans are known for being able to consume insane quantities of that black substance called Coca-Cola with virtually every meal, there’s even a limit to that. However, with water, which is perceived as healthy and life-sustaining (it is), there’s no limit.

Ca-ching. Market opportunity.

It cracks me up here how they sell these mineral waters, even the ones that are known to be filtered. Images of azure glaciers, pure Andean springs, a crystalline lake all promising miracle health benefits as if they were the fountain of youth. Even better in Chile are the latest trend of these “flavored” waters, which are nothing more than bottled water with artificial flavoring, sucralose, and a cocktail of other non-natural components. They seduce your natural human instinct of seeking pureness in water but it’s not mineral water. It’s filtered. The same thing that’s in your kitchen. For FREE. These days, it seems as if tap water is only good for a shower or washing dishes. Since when? Tap water is to drink too.

I propose the following. Buy one of these stainless steel bottles, canteens, to take filtered tap water from your home, or office, with you everywhere. You wash them and they will last decades. I also recommend a filtering system like Brita which works with a simple, plastic pitcher. You always have fresh, neutral-tasting water on hand. And for all the Chilean folks in restaurants, I really recommend you take a hint from your colleagues in North America and the Europe where the first thing served after being seated in a restaurant, aside from hello, is to bring glasses and a pitcher of ice water. Water “on the house”, tap or filtered water. Charging for water in restaurants, in my humble opinion, is as absurd as charging to use the chairs, napkins, or bathroom. Serving water “on the house” is part of the service. A value-added service that shows true respect for a restaurant’s patrons. Those restaurants essentially recognize this basic human right to have clean drinking water–for free. Part of a thank you for coming to dine with them. In my opinion, that’s powerful. In Santiago, I can only think of two restaurants that serve filtered water like this: Akarana y Baco (both interestingly owned by expats). Honestly, I really dislike those trendy or “gourmet” restaurants here that put you down (the waiter, maitre’d, or even fellow diners) if you ask for a glass of tap water. Seriously, what the heck is that all about?

I committed to stop drinking bottled water when I found out the real truth behind bottled “mineral” water. Chile is reproducing what’s going on all over the world. I feel that this is such a simple and easy habit for me to change. However, simple changes have that miracle effect called compounding. I can make a huge impact over the course of my lifetime, for my health and that of the planet we all share, by doing this tiny action. Earth, last time I checked, is our only home. I propose to make water more “transparent” again and return to drinking tap or our own filtered water. In Chile at least, and throughout other parts of the developed world, we are so blessed to have delicious, clean drinking water. Please make the decision to opt for it. Ultimately, the decision is in your glass.

Translated from Spanish: monthly editorial column for February in Placeres Magazine in Chile.

Thanks to Brian Burgess for this cool shot.


midnitechef February 8, 2011 at 4:18 pm

During summers in Texas when there are droughts, most resturants I’ve been to will not bring the glass of ice water to you unless you ask for it. Otherwise, while the lakes and aquifers are stable, ice water comes immediately to your table.

In America, there is an ad on TV for water filters that say the amount of plastic bottles we use could circle the globe 190 times! That’s too much pollution if you ask me.

We drink tap water at home and filtered water at work. It’s very rare to find a bottle of water that I’ve been using. I tend to reuse the bottle a few times before tossing it in my recycle bin. I wish more people would do the same.

Spread the word Liz!

Randy Havre February 8, 2011 at 6:15 pm

Aloha Liz,

As you say it is a business. What has always tripped us out in Santiago is that the “aqua con gas” at restaurants is almost as much as a glass of wine. We are lucky in Hawaii to have some of the purest water in the world straight from “the tap”

Rob W. February 8, 2011 at 8:09 pm

I have always drunk tap water in Chile (except the first days where I was too freaked out to even brush my teeth).

Very interesting what you have said about the waste bottled water creates.

Christine February 8, 2011 at 8:23 pm

Well said, well written. I hope others listen up.

Sara Beck February 9, 2011 at 6:07 pm

Superb post! I agree 100%. It is a huge business and a huge marketing ploy to somehow imply that a person will be healthier or more youthful if they drink “mineral” water. I’ve been drinking water all my life and I’m not getting any younger. Oh wait, let me check…no, I’m not. In the US they have done tests on the water and found out that in most cases the water is exactly what comes from your tap and in a few cases the tap water is even cleaner due to industry standards.

I will order tap water at restaurants in Chile and people do stare at me. Many times, they even forget to bring it out with the rest of the beverages, as if to say “Your request was so banal that I couldn’t be bothered to even remember it.” Sometimes my fiancé will order for me just to avoid them glaring at me and muttering under their breath as they sketch out “agua de la llave” on their tablets.

I think it’s especially important in a country like Chile to take initiatives to reduce their waste because the recycling industry is in its infant stage at best.

Hungry Sofia February 18, 2011 at 9:28 pm

I had a serious bottled water addiction even thought NYC tap water is pretty good. Finally, I could’t justify the cost to the environment and I switched to a filter attachment for my tap. Not only is it cheaper than the monthly water delivery service I was using the less expensive filters had better amazon reviews. So happy not to have to lug those giant bottles up the stairs anymore.

aps March 23, 2011 at 3:45 pm

We buy filtered water in a five gallon reusable jug. The water here has flouride in it, in parts per million that should not be consumed. It frustrates me that many people don’t know the harm they are doing to their insides when they drink flouride. As a topical treatment when there is a diseased or soft tooth but otherwise, no. So while I understand your desire to reduce bottles going into landfills, please research whether there are any additives in your water before recommending it unfiltered.

Liz Caskey March 23, 2011 at 3:52 pm

Hi Amber, thanks for your comment. One of the biggest recommendations I make (and adhere too) is using a filter for tap water as an alternative to buying bottled water. Brita is now widely available in Chile and we use one in our house precisely for this reason. In the cited restaurants, they use filtered water too.

Sue March 23, 2011 at 4:02 pm

Please don’t drink the “black stuff” mentioned, this is even more of an environmental disaster than drinking bottled water!

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