As the summer chugs on, each day is a battle to consume those infamous eight glasses of water. As such, what we drink has been on my mind a lot lately. After doing a little Googling one day, however, I became concerned.

Jessica Boullion
Kate Truesdell

In elementary school, I was constantly taught to “Reduce, Reuse and Recycle.” When I was first introduced to the idea of a Nalgene bottle that wasn’t only reusable but also virtually indestructible I was, of course, thrilled. Little did I know that 10 years later my first foray into environmentalism would spiral into a mass of guilt, confusion and worry.

Nalgenes are a campus staple, appealing not only to the rugged outdoor types (or those wishing to appear to be rugged outdoor types) but anyone who can afford the bottle’s relatively modest cost and wishes to do a part for the environment by reusing water bottles. Yet these seemingly innocent containers have been a source of great controversy over the past few years.

Most hard Nalgenes – including the popular multi-colored bottles – are made of Lexan. This material is a No. 7 polycarbonate plastic. It has been found that increasingly over time this type of plastic begins to seep chemicals, mainly bisphenol A.

Bisphenol A has been linked to a host of health problems in studies with rats. The chemical mimics estrogen and impacts the endocrine system. Other problems include chromosomal disorders, tumor development and decreased sperm count.

Furthermore, No. 7 plastics (being, of course, indestructible) do not easily break down in landfills. They can also be hard to recycle, since local recycling plants must accept this specific grade of plastic or you must take it to a location that does.

However, don’t chuck those bottles out the window just yet; after all, they won’t biodegrade. There is some good (or at least less bad) news. The effect of bisphenol A on humans has yet to be shown conclusively. Also, the amount of exposure necessary to induce negative health effects is up for debate. The issue remains a source of controversy and research within the scientific community. But there are other options: Nalgene makes alternative bottles out of No. 2 plastics that have not been shown to seep bisphenol A (though, sadly, not in a myriad of colors).

The point of writing all this is not to harvest unnecessary fear (something we hardly need more of). I still use my Nalgenes – though if I buy any more, they’ll be No. 2s to be on the safe side. I only suggest that we all rethink the things we buy, or rather think before we buy at all. Take time to research where that apple you are eating came from or how far your T-shirt had to travel. Research the companies from which you buy. Every dollar you spend is a vote for the kind of technologies (such as plastics) or business practices you want to support.

I’m not saying you have to sell all your worldly possessions and only eat wild plants you scavenge from the Arb. (Though if this column compels you to do so, please let me know; it would be a great follow-up piece.) Nor is it realistic to ask that you sit down for a week straight and document the source of every item you own. But choose one product you use regularly each week and start there.

It’s not about being a non-consumer; it’s about being a conscientious one.

Kate Truesdell can be reached at ketrue@umich.edu.

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