Bottlemania Hardcover – May 20 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
Royte (Garbage Land) plunges into America's mighty thirst for bottled water in an investigation of one of the greatest marketing coups of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. As tap water has become cleaner and better-tasting, the bottled water industry has exploded into a $60 billion business; consumers guzzle more high-priced designer water than milk or beer and spend billions on brands such as Pepsi's Aquafina and Coke's Dasani that are essentially processed municipal water. It's an unparalleled—and almost exclusively American—social phenomenon. With journalistic zeal, Royte chronicles the questionable practices of Nestle-owned Poland Springs and documents the environmental impact of discarded plastic bottles, the carbon footprint of water shipped long distances and health concerns around the leaching of plastic compounds from bottles. Not all tap water is perfectly pure, writes Royte, still, 92% of the nation's 53,000 local water systems meet or exceed federal safety standards and it is the devil we know, at least as good and often better than bottled water. This portrait of the science, commerce and politics of potable water is an entertaining and eye-opening narrative. (June)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
“Fantastic.” ―Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“Ingenious.... Amiably, without haranguing or hyperventilating, this veteran environmental writer has produced what could be, assuming enough people read it, one of the year's most influential books.” ―Boston Globe
“Royte's lively investigation of water politics will leave you ashamed to drink out of plastic, uneasy about the tap, and impressed by her ability to synthesize complicated material into such a witty and engaging book.” ―Entertainment Weekly
“An easy-to-swallow survey.... after you read it you will sip warily from your water bottle (whether purchased or tap, plastic or not), as freaked out by your own role in today's insidious water wars as by Royte's recommended ecologically responsible drink: 'Toilet to tap'.” ―Lisa Margonelli, New York Times Book Review
“Light and easy-to-read narrative…lots of interesting factoids…” ―Providence Journal-Bulletin
“At a time of climate change and increasing risks to global water supplies, we must change the way we think about this crucial resource and begin treating it as a public good to be preserved, rather than the equivalent of an oil deposit or timber forest, ripe for corporate exploitation.” ―New Scientist
“An intriguing look at a totem of the ultramodern, perhaps selfish, way we live now” ―Time Out Chicago
“a well-balanced, interesting and instructive book about our fundamental human need to drink water” ―Chicago Sun Times
“Seamlessly blending scientific explanation and social observation” ―LA Times Book Review
“Bottlemania makes the case that it's not in our interests to let private multinational corporations float their boats on our nation's water. That's not democracy, it's dam-ocracy, and it could damn us all if we let their unquenchable thirst for profit take precedence over our right to clean, safe, free drinking water.” ―Kerry Trueman, Huffingtonpost.com
“An intrepid, intelligent analysis of Americans' raging thirst for bottled water.” ―BookPage
“An essential, if somewhat disturbing, read.” ―VeryShortList.com
“A breezy, accessible history of water through the ages....a good account of the tensions in the little town of Fryeburg, Maine.” ―New York Post
“A sharp indictment of the bottled-water industry” ―New York Observer
“Informative” ―Meghan O'Rourke, Slate.com
“Compelling and dynamic” ―Library Journal
“Entertaining and eye-opening” ―Publishers Weekly
“Bottlemania is eye-opening and informative; you will never look at water – either "designer" or tap – in quite the same way. Royte demonstrates how everything is, in the end, truly connected.” ―Elizabeth Kolbert
“Royte deserves credit for her tenacity and well-balanced approach….Lively investigative journalism.” ―Kirkus ReviewsSee all Product Description
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Despite the "funny" review of a top 1000 reviewer (imagine that) that considers this book as propaganda for more regulation, it is quite the opposite. The book comes across as a systematic analysis of how the industry evolved and some on-the-scene reporting of key players like Nestle and Poland Springs. The chapter on the latter, neatly cataloging the unimaginable conflicts of interests and a apparently pliant local public officials, alone is worth the price of the book. It is impossible for a reader not to be shocked at some of the reporting (the author almost always avoids any preachy tone). The contrasts and comparisons drawn between the Freysburg and Kingsfield communities is an interesting read as well. There is another chapter that outlines some actions companies like Coke are taking to evaluate their footprint. Another chapter worth mentioning is "Something to Drink?" - the last chapter which takes a broader viewpoint and ties the topics to global warming and related issues. You will learn fun stats as "a cotton t-shirt is backed by 528.3 gallons of water and a single cup of coffee by 52.8 gallons".
Now, the negatives - The book takes a decidely US-centric narration. There is no extensive discussion on similar issues outside of the US (though there is some mention on the Coke debacle in India). The first-account narrative style helps to provide a very down-to-earth method to convey the ideas, but sometimes distracts from highlighting some of the salient points being made.
Nevertheless, an informative, entertaining read that will certainly question the utility of an entire industry.
This is because Ms. Royte's simple questions about bottled water lead her and us on an exploration of a whole hidden world of our water and sanitation resources and infrastructure that lies behind our taps. How does bottled springwater differ from tap water in terms of harmful biological and chemical contaminants? How did the fad of chugging water out of throwaway plastic bottles catch on? Where does our tap water come from? How is it treated? Is that necessarily good for us? What is happening to the watersheds that all of us depend on? How can they be protected? How are water and sanitation systems interrelated? Are these groundwater and freshwater issues affected by other environmental trends, like global warming? And so on.
Like Ms. Royte, you will probably come to the end of this brisk, readable work knowing a lot more about your own water and sanitation then you did when you began and have a much better appreciation of the somewhat unsurprising policy conclusions she reaches: that protecting our public drinking water "commons" makes more sense than drinking water bottled at distant plants.
Although judging by the cute title and cover art the topic might seem a bit frothy and more of a treatise on marketing and product development, the author's target is much wider. I am an environmental attorney and have handled permitting and litigation involving public water supply and sanitary treatment systems and bottled springwater, and am impressed by how the author is able to get so much technical detail right, while keep it readable and interesting to a lay audience. Ms. Royte has written one of the best general interest books in a long while on an important, probably, THE most important environmental topic (other than climate change/greenhouse gases) of "wat-san" and preserving/expanding our aging public water and sewer infrastructure. In getting to those conclusions by starting her inquiry with questions about commoditized bottled water, the author attempts to be evenhanded and fair in her depiction of the corporate and individual actors without overly indulging in anti-corporate bias.
My only minor quibble is the omission of any discussion of state licensing requirements and associated testing and reporting requirements (where it says, e.g., "NYSHD Cert. No. ___" on the label in small type). However, that's just a small omission, although I'm surprised the Nestle people didn't mention that there are state reviews of their in-house analytical and production data, it would seem to make their case stronger that water quality is not merely self-regulated or conforming only to advisory industry standards (i.e., IBWA) with respect to periodic testing, labeling and allowable maximum contaminant levels. That small error however does not detract significantly from the quality of this book. I've just ordered a few more copies of this book to share with several friends and colleagues who I think would be interested, that's how much I'm recommending 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
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