08/23/2011 02:19 pm ET | Updated Oct 24, 2011

Avoiding Bottled Water Even While Abroad

Plastics are the enemy. They leech into the products they contain. They let off gas (I'm not kidding, they let off a constant stream of undetectable fumes) and they're made from petroleum in a complicated process that creates major toxic waste.

In an EPA ranking of the top twenty chemicals in hazardous waste production, five of the top six are chemicals used in the plastics industry. What's more, you'd better like plastic, because it doesn't biodegrade and is going to be around at least 600 years longer than you are.

My biggest pet peeve, however, is bottled water, most of which is marketed by Pepsi (Aquafina) and Coca-Cola (Dasani). Maybe we could justify the 105 billion plastic water bottles produced each year and the 40 million bottles that end up in the landfill each day if their contents were truly more pure and healthy. But a huge percent of bottled waters come straight from the same municipal water supply that pours from your tap. Yes, Pepsi, I'm talking to you.

From an environmental standpoint, bottled water is killing us.

Okay, so what's my point?

I also despise diarrhea (having it) and other illnesses I've been known to pick up in foreign countries. So on a recent sojourn to Ecuador, I knew I'd either need to treat water or gag myself with bottled water. The leader of my volunteer group assured me that bottled water was readily available and dirt cheap, but that didn't change the fact that I despise plastic water bottles.

So I began investigating options. I've used iodine in the past, but it makes water taste weird, doable for a week or so, but I was going to be teaching English classes in the Andes for six weeks. And in Quichinche, a rural village at nearly 9000-feet, I was going to need water and lots of it.

Boiling was out, because I didn't know if I'd have a stove or a source for firewood. Chlorine dioxide tablets meet EPA guidelines, but you have to wait at least 30 minutes and an entire four hours if cryptosporidium is suspected. Likewise, filtration devices aren't 100 percent effective at knocking out all the likely suspects.

Finally, I heard about SteriPen, a small device that takes a grand total of 90 seconds to purify water. This miniature light saber, as I began to think of it, weighs next to nothing, fits easily inside a shoe (with room leftover to pack a couple socks) and uses the same process to kill bacteria as several big cities in America. Ultraviolet light zaps unwanted viruses and other cooties that lurk in untreated water. You simply push a button, stick the flashlight-sized device in your water bottle and stir it around for a long minute. Voila! All the nasties are gone and the water is safe to drink.

There were seven volunteers on my trip with the Tandana Foundation. Every single one but me, all using different types of water purification systems, got sick at one point or another on the trip. Eventually, the other volunteers turned to buying five-liter plastic bottles of water. Sure, they were cheap in the market of Otavalo, but I just couldn't stomach using that much plastic.

So here's a raised glass of water to SteriPEN and the amazing technology that keeps travelers safe no matter where they are.