Putting Warning Labels on Bottled Water Might Not Be as Crazy as It Sounds

A new petition is asking for graphic text and photos to be slapped on the single-use containers.

(Photo: Hans-Peter Merten/Getty Images)

Jun 22, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Labels warning people about the dangers of lung cancer, heart disease, and emphysema are common on cigarette packaging around the developed world. But if thirsty consumers looking to sip from a plastic bottle of water were confronted with stickers and photos that educated them about the containers’ disastrous effects on the environment, would they change their purchasing habits?

That’s the hope of Santa Cruz, California, resident Trey Highton. Last week he launched a Change.org petition asking the Golden State to “continue its role at the vanguard of the conservation movement by placing graphic warning labels, similar to those now on cigarette packaging, on single-use plastic water bottles.”

Highton notes that thanks to California’s catastrophic four-year-long drought, petitions asking for corporations such as Walmart and Nestlé to be prevented from bottling the state’s precious H2O supply have garnered plenty of public support. Earlier this year it was discovered that despite operating on an expired permit, Nestlé sucked 750 million gallons of water out of California’s San Bernardino National Forest in 2014. Meanwhile, Walmart’s Great Value brand taps Sacramento’s municipal water supply.

“Unfortunately, these bans will do nothing to alter consumer behavior,” wrote Highton in his petition. If Walmart and Nestlé aren’t bottling up water and selling it, some other company will, and folks who are unaware of the hazardous effect of plastic water bottles on the environment will keep purchasing and throwing away the containers.

Highton wants labels with images depicting the dry-as-a-bone California ground or plastic refuse on beaches, because people are more likely to respond to warning labels with text and graphic photos. He cites a 2012 study conducted by researchers at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania that found that half of people will recall a text-only tobacco warning label, but 83 percent will correctly recall a label that also contains a gruesome photo showing what can happen if you light up.

Warning label graphic as shown on Change.org. (Photo: Courtesy Change.org)

So, Why Should You Care? Americans consume nearly 10 billion gallons of bottled water every year, and we only recycle 20 percent of those containers. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, it takes about 450 years for just one of those bottles to decompose, and plastic waste causes an estimated $13 billion in damage to marine ecosystems around the globe every year, according to the United Nations Environment Programme. Highton also noted that “plastic debris causes the deaths of more than a million seabirds every year, as well as more than 100,000 marine mammals.”

Graphic labels of dirty beaches or animals choking on bits of plastic could “get an important message outside the typical echo chambers of health or environmental activists,” wrote Highton.

So far, just over 8,000 people have signed Highton’s petition—and he’s encouraged by the response. “Let’s take the initiative and responsibility together to ensure the success and implementation of this petition, which will be a small but important step in curbing the production of single-use plastics and an inherently unnecessary waste of water,” he wrote in an update.