Additional Comments: United Nations Environment Programme desert travel publication

We have received additional comments on the July 5 tips from a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) desert travel publication, stating that:

Drinking purified, as opposed to mineral water in plastic bottles, taking your old batteries back home, and using gas rather than firewood for cooking are some of the ways to lessen the environmental impact of the desert vacation.

These and other tips concerned with issues like desert driving, accommodation, and respect for local communities and cultures are some of the "do's and don'ts" contained in a new publication on desert tourism released on June 6 by the UNEP.

To access the publication, "Tourism and Deserts -- A Practical Guide to Managing the Social and Environmental Impacts in the Desert Recreation Sector," go to http://www.unep.fr/pc/tourism.

In the July 25 e-newsletter was a comment from Sean Duffy, Public Works Department, City of Wilmington, Del., who wrote:

I take issue with your environmental tip on a desert vacation about drinking purified water from a plastic bottle as being environmentally friendly. Drinking tap water from a faucet or storing it in a reusable container for future use is best. All those plastic bottles end up somewhere and there is an energy cost associated with producing all that plastic. Most of these bottles are not reused and they are plainly visible lining the sides of our highways. In addition, the cost of bottled purified water may be as much as a 1,000 times that of tap water and there is no evidence to say it is safer.

Following are further comments received after the July 25 e-newsletter:

Gerald Edgar, Health & Safety Manager, Gold'n Plump Poultry, writes:

I heartily agree with Mr. Duffy but let me take his thoughts one step further. It's not just the energy costs of producing the plastic bottles used for commercial "water" but the fact that they are made from petroleum. Most Americans (and by extension nearly all the world) forget that petroleum is the major component of all plastics. Think about that when the grocery or discount store wants to put your one or two item purchase in a plastic bag -- a total waste. More states need to expand deposit laws to include plastic beverage containers instead of effectively penalizing superior metal & glass containers, the latter being the one true "refillable."

Don Piepgrass, P.E., who worked in the area of water supply and wastewater treatment for 15 years, 13 years for the City and County of Honolulu, writes:

Water is one of the most important things we use every day and at our homes in America there are extensive systems to ensure it is safe for us to drink and use. When we travel into the desert the importance of water increases while the difficulty of keeping water safe or of obtaining any water, but especially safe water, increases. Commercial bottled water comes purified and sealed and is safe for the duration of any trip; just don't litter. Tap water is much cheaper than bottled water and is generally brought along in bottles and in bulk not only for drinking but for washing, food preparation, sanitation and other uses. For non-potable uses a few drops of common chlorine bleach will keep water free of mold and bacterial contamination, though if the container breathes it may have to be retreated every few days. For drinking water (since chlorine in its many forms are almost all hazardous) safety can be ensured by adding a few drops of food grade hydrogen peroxide or H2O2 when the bottles are filled. Don't overdo it as the taste is terrible but dissipates fairly fast if the container is left open. I have found that in the tropics naturally occurring bacteria can utilize the trace amounts of sulfur present in most water to produce hydrogen sulfide that makes water undrinkable unless boiled. Peroxide will kill these and other bacteria and keep properly sealed containers of water safe during extended storage.

Feedback also was sought from the UNEP, which offered a statement that:

A consultative meeting on the desert publication was made on (Jan. 16, 2006) to proof content made by an expert and to evaluate cases studies. In this meeting, purified water was considered to be the only solution by the tour operators and specialists in deserts who attended in the meeting due to the difficulty to find mineral water locally, carrying mineral water bottles on camels is very difficult, and most of the places do not have recycling plants for plastics. It was also stated that in the future, the best will be to work deeply on big containers of mineral water.

UNEP is well aware of the impacts of the pollution of plastic bottles in desert areas and that is also one of the reasons that one graphic on page 25 (of the publication) states a table on the time of the decomposition of this kind of waste in desert areas.

This article originally appeared in the 08/01/2006 issue of Environmental Protection.

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