Thirsting for a Solution

The high cost of alternatives to single-use plastic water bottles makes conservation a luxury

Water is the most essential of all nutrients for plant and animal life across the planet, and there is no substitute. It is, literally, the essence of life. So, it stands to reason that access to safe drinking water should be considered a human right in any civilized society. But, as evidenced by the 2014 lead contamination debacle in Flint, Michigan, sadly it is not. (Lead in tap water continues to be a health concern in many U.S. cities, typically those with large minority populations, like Oakland, California.) 

Hawaiian-born actor Jason Momoa said he wanted to create a “wave of change” by reducing single-use plastic waste when he founded Mananalu Water Company. Photo courtesy Instagram / prideofgypsies

Closer to home, Kula residents were under a “boil water” advisory in December 2021 due to E. coli contamination. Due to this and a host of other concerns, many Maui residents don’t trust their tap water. 

In a 2005 documentary, Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, then CEO of Nestlé, the world’s largest seller of bottled water, came under fire for suggesting that “declaring water a public right” was an “extreme” position. 

“That means that as a human being you should have a right to water. That’s an extreme solution,” he said. “The other view says that water is a foodstuff like any other, and like any other foodstuff it should have a market value.” The public backlash was immediate, many calling for a boycott. 

Plastic bottles, the most common way in which water is packaged and sold, are notorious pollutants, breaking down into smaller microplastics that litter the ocean and enter the food chain. You have some traces of it in your bloodstream right now. But even in Hawai‘i, where the consciousness about plastic pollution is higher than most places, the State Senate failed to pass a proposed ban on plastic bottles last year. This was, in part, because it wasn’t limited to bottled drinks, but extended to all bottled fluids, including things like motor oil, laundry soap, shampoo, and insecticides. Forcing all of those industries to comply and switch their packaging slammed the brakes. And the law lacked an exception for water-supply emergencies or disaster relief. 

So, what’s a Mauian to do if they don’t want to contribute to the problem? For one, it’s important to make sure that your empty bottles have the best chance of being recycled. That means checking the numbers in the little triangular “recycle” logo to make sure that it’s on the “recyclables” list here, so you can avoid contaminating the rest of the bin (spoiler alert, most aren’t). Even then, since the value of waste plastic is very low, the likelihood of even the supposedly recyclable plastics ending up in an incinerator or a landfill is, unfortunately, pretty high. But don’t let that keep you from sorting them out. Stop doing so and there’s zero chance of diverting them from the local landfill.

Brian Gabrielson of Kīhei opts to refill jugs at The Water Store—at a third of the cost of even the cheapest bottled water we could find. Photo by Dan Collins

The obvious solution is to look for bottled water in anything but single-use plastic. Even Coca Cola Company’s Dasani purified water is available in 100 percent recycled plastic bottles, if you can find them. We found seven brands in recycled plastic bottles at Maui grocers. All but Dasani and Coke brands advertised as alkaline, as well. But as well-intentioned as they are, the reality is that recycled plastic bottles may be impossible to re-recycle here, even though the label exhorts us to. For this article, we stuck to unflavored, still water (not sparkling) sold in single bottles of various sizes at regular retail price. 

Two brands are widely available in glass bottles on Maui: Nestle’s Acqua Panna and Voss from Norway, the latter of which comes in a sturdy cylindrical bottle popular for refilling. Aluminum bottles are also refillable, particularly the tall 25 oz. bottles from Path and Proud Source. 

However, Path attaches plastic threaded necks and caps, making them more difficult to recycle. Actor and Hawai‘i Island resident Jason Momoa’s Mananalu brand (bottled in North Carolina) comes in a smaller 16 oz. aluminum bottle, as does a brand called Heart Water, which promises that 23 percent of their profits go towards providing safe drinking water to “water challenged communities around the world.” For that added benefit, you’ll pay a whopping 28 cents per ounce, close to three times the ten cents per ounce average price of the products we surveyed. 

That brings us to the big problem with bottled water, regardless of the packaging it’s dressed in. It’s expensive. 

While conducting the grocery price survey for our February 2022 issue, we learned that it has a higher markup in Hawai‘i than any other beverage we import. Sodas, juice, and other non-alcoholic beverages are all more on par with U.S. Mainland prices, while bottled water is dramatically more expensive here. Retailers blame the distributors, pointing out that store brands, which are shipped along with groceries, rather than being purchased from a local wholesale distributor, are significantly less expensive, which generally proves to be true.

Among the recycled plastic bottled water brands we found, the average cost is about nine cents per ounce, with Whole Foods’ 365 brand being the lowest at about six and a half cents per ounce. Boxed Water is Better brand was the most affordable among the water in cartons at about seven cents per ounce, the average being about nine cents, the same as the recycled plastic bottles. 

Both Zen WTR from Southern California and Texas brand Core Hydration come in 100% recycled plastic bottles, excluding caps and labels—and Core tied for least expensive overall; Mananalu proved to be the best value in an aluminum bottle at seven cents an ounce, while Heart Water’s Plain Rain costs four times that; Italy’s Acqua Panna and Norway’s Voss are the only still water options readily available locally in glass; Michigan’s Boxed Water Is Better brand was among the least expensive alternatives, and like New York’s Just Water, it comes in a plant-based plastic and paper carton. Photo by Dan Collins

The average cost of water in aluminum bottles or cans is a bit more, at about 12 cents per ounce, with Mananalu pulling the average down at just seven cents an ounce. Those heavy glass bottles come at a premium—probably due to their high shipping cost—of about 14 cents per ounce. Compare those numbers to the average price of water in ordinary plastic—just under seven cents per ounce— and you’ll find that, as usual, being environmentally conscious comes at a price. But failing to make the right consumer decisions today will cost us so much more in the long run. 

Incidentally, the least expensive bottled water brands we could find were Niagara (1.5 cents/ounce), Safeway’s Signature Select Refreshe (2.4 cents/ounce), and Crystal Geyser (3.1 cents/ounce), with local brand Menehune coming in a close fourth at 3.6 cents per ounce—all in the one gallon size. As expected, the smaller the bottle, the more you pay by volume. 

Why not eliminate the packaging altogether and just refill your own jugs? The Water Company will gladly help with that. Their two locations in Wailuku and Kahului sell reverse-osmosis purified water for 70 cents per gallon, or half a cent per ounce. Brian Gabrielson was among the dozen or so customers filling bottles at their Maui Lani location in January. “I’m not exactly a water snob,” he claimed, as he loaded eight five-gallon jugs into the bed of his pickup to haul home to Kihei. “It’s subtle, but the iron taste is there,” he said of his tap water at home. 

For some, it’s just a matter of taste. They are the fortunate ones. 

Dan Collins