Bottlemania: how water went on sale and why we bought it
(Published by Bloomsbury USA, New York - First edition 2008)
What is our future if water, life's most vital necessity, becomes a commodity - to be sold for profit - rather than a shared commons? In this fast-moving, well-researched book, Elizabeth Royte describes the astonishing increase in sales of bottled water in the U.S.; this, despite the fact that tap water costs anywhere from 240 to 10,000 times less than bottled water, is more strictly regulated, and comes out evenly in blind tests against the top brand names.
Royte raises two main questions: "One has concrete answers: what are the physical differences between tap water and bottled, and what is water bottling actually doing to the environment and the local communities? The other questions are more abstract: Even if bottled water makes sense, for health or other reasons, even if it is harmless, is it ethical to profit from its sale? If we believe water is a basic human right - such as freedom from persecution or equality before the law - then why would we let anyone slap a bar code on it?
In addressing the first question, Royte describes the struggles of the residents of Fryeburg, Maine - population 3,000 - to stop Poland Springs, owned by Nestle, from continuing to extract water from their local, pristine watershed to supply their bottling plant in the nearby town of Hollis. The struggle has been ongoing for over four years and it is tearing the town apart. Some residents claim that their wells are running dry but find this hard to prove against Nestle's array of experts that claim they are not over-pumping. Other residents are concerned with the effects of water drawdown on those creatures that depend on the watershed streams and springs for their survival. Others question the right of a powerful multinational to override the wishes of a small community to maintain their lifestyle. And yet other town residents are amenable to what they perceive as improvements brought about by the bottling company. Sadly, the result is a small town divided into factions, with the outcome still unclear.
Royte explains the reasons for the skyrocketing sales of bottled water. Unbelievably, from only 1990 to 1997, U.S. sales of bottled water increased from $115 million to $4 billion. Clever, multimillion dollar marketing stressed the need to drink at least eight, eight fluid ounce bottles per day; the "chic appeal" of being seen taking sips from your individual bottle - a sign of a busy life style that precluded time out for relaxation; and the convenience of having a bottle in hand rather than having to seek out a water fountain or office cooler. The increase was also due to an often-overlooked invention - PET plastic that enabled the manufacture of stronger, lighter and potentially recyclable bottles.
Unfortunately, this craze for bottled water is placing ever more stress on the environment. As explained by Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institue, the energy required for the manufacture, transport and disposal of each bottle is equivalent to filling one quarter of the bottle with oil. And only 15% of these bottles get recycled. Most are buried in landfills or are burned in incinerators.
According to Royte, in 2006, 44% of bottled water sold in the U.S. came from municipal supplies. This is certainly less harmful than pumping from aquifers although the bottling companies deny any harm and claim that they pump at sustainable rates - after all, this is in their own interests. Even though the bottlers claim that they only remove .02% of the total annual groundwater withdrawal, we must remember that this water is permanently removed from the watershed, unlike the local utility that discharges used water into the same watershed.
With public thirst for bottled water on the increase, the water multinationals are fanning out all over the U.S. in search of fresh sources. So far, the towns are reacting like deer caught in the headlights and seem unable to promulgate ordinances prohibiting outsiders from mining their water for gain. The one exception (there may be others since the book was published) is the tiny hamlet of Barnstead, N.H. which, in 2006, was the first municipality in the U.S. to ban extraction of their water for sale elsewhere.
The discovery of the disinfection properties of chlorine, and the commencement of its widespread use in drinking water, in 1920, was the start of the successful public control of drinking water, and the setting of standards for maximum levels of various pollutants - standards and pollutants that are constantly being revised.
One of the more ominous threats to drinking water quality is global warming. Heavier storms that are becoming the norm wash excesses of pollutants of all kinds into surface and ground waters, and overwhelm sewage treatment plants. Among these pollutants are atrazine, a widely-used herbicide that can cause birth defects and whose use is being enhanced by the ethanol boom; and 0157:H7, a virulent strain of E coli, originating in cattle and that does not respond to chlorine.
Eliminating these dangerous contaminants, and others, and complying with strict federal standards is a monumental task for the purveyors of public drinking water. On the whole, throughout the U.S., municipal water is safe to drink. However, Royte does suggest the use of individual filters to protect the very young and the very old, or those with immune-deficient systems.
Pepsi's Aquafina and Coke's Dasani are both drawn from municipal sources. However, bottled water, whether drawn from municipal sources or local aquifers does not have to comply with the stringent regulations imposed on municipal water. And despite its intensive marketing, blind tests generally fail to differentiate between bottled and tap water.
In times of severe storms that are becoming more frequent, as already mentioned, bottled water could be the only alternative. But, in the absence of such disasters, Royte is a firm advocate of using public supplies. As she so eloquently states: "Switching to bottled water isn't something I'm willing to contemplate at this point: it's expensive, it's heavy to haul around, and the production and disposal of all those bottles can't be good for the planet... Opting out of public water in favor of private isn't going to help preserve - or improve - municipal water supplies, but preserve them we must: too many people can afford to drink nothing but."
Review by Marian H. Rose, PhD
Croton Watershed Clean Water Coalition