The Backlash Against Bottled Water

The worldwide demand for water is doubling every 20 years. By 2025, two-thirds of all people may be facing severe water shortages. Concurrently, the bottled-water market has been exploding in North America. Today, close to one-fifth of the population relies exclusively on bottled water for its daily hydration. In the past decade, North American sales of bottled water tripled; in some regions consumption of it outpaces coffee, tea, apple juice, and milk.

The Natural Resources Defense Council has estimated that bottled water is between 240 and 10,000 times more expensive than tap water. For Coca-Cola's Dasani and Pepsi's Aquafina, products drawn from municipal taps, this price markup is astonishing. Nestlé pays little for the water it takes out of groundwater streams and aquifers. Bottled water is quite simply water transformed into water. Bottled water is often depicted as coming from pristine natural environments. The label on Alaska Premium Glacier Drinking Water claims that it is "Pure Glacier Water from the Last Unpolluted Frontier." Minor detail: The water used for this brand is municipal water drawn from the public water system in Juneau. Similarly, Nestlé's Poland Spring brand is not spring water drawn from a pristine and protected source as its label suggests. Usually it is water from borehole wells located near the company's bottling plants, or simply reprocessed distilled tap water.

The bottled-water industry benefits from some health advocates' statements about the rise of obesity and the importance of hydration. Industry manipulations of urban myths like the 8x8 rule (drink eight 8-ounce glasses of water a day) have been turned into hydration calculators featured on the industry trade association's Web site, despite health experts' doubts about their validity.

Consistent with marketing bottled water as an essential component of a healthy lifestyle, the industry stresses recycling. But according to the Sierra Club, this year Americans will throw 30 million water bottles into landfills everyday, while only 13 percent of water bottles get reused or recycled.

News outlets play an unwitting role in promoting bottled water by widely reporting violations of drinking water regulations or failures with our public water systems. Bottled-water plants are likely to be inspected only once every four to five years. Public water systems like New York City's exemplary one undergo stringent checks every four hours.

The International Bottled Water Association (IBWA) argues that its industry is governed by an "effective and comprehensive system of federal and state regulations and standards" that in the U.S. fall under the Food and Drug Administration. But use of FDA regulations is uneven: Some states adopt them, some develop their own, and others have no regulations at all. And if FDA standards and regulations were adequate, why would states like Massachusetts, West Virginia, and Illinois have implemented their own stricter water-safety laws?

The industry also defends itself by presenting aggregate water statistics based on a study by the Drinking Water Research Foundation, which is sponsored and funded by the bottled-water industry. This group finds that ground water withdrawals for bottled water are modest in comparison with massive water use by manufacturing and agricultural enterprises. But this analysis misses the important point that sound and sustainable water management needs to be based not on overall figures but on impacts on watershed.

Plastic-bottle manufacturing relies on fossil fuels and releases toxic chemicals into the air and water supply that can adversely affect nervous systems, blood, kidneys, and immune systems, and can cause cancer and birth defects. The respected Pacific Institute calculates that it cost about 17 million barrels of oil to make the plastic bottles for water that Americans consumed in 2006.

In recent years, activists have undertaken a strategic campaign to challenge many of the bottled-water myths. Tony Clarke's 2005 book, Inside the Bottle: An Exposé of the Bottled Water Industry, drew wide attention. Fervent battles to protect groundwater from rapacious harvesting by the industry unfolded across North America. Community-based coalitions sprung up in Wisconsin to stop Perrier from building a bottled-water plant. Nestlé ran into community resistance in Michigan and California, from residents determined to protect their local water system. Even smaller bottled-water companies are encountering the determination of local groups -- in New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine -- committed to keeping their aquifers in the public domain.

The industry is beginning to respond to such pressures. Coca-Cola recently reported that it would be "moving to de-emphasize" its water brand. Late in 2007 the market-research firm Mintel predicted that "2008 will be the beginning of a significant backlash against plain bottled water, as consumers become more aware of the environmental impact of bottling and shipping water from remote locations to their local supermarkets. ... We are likely to see companies launching more functional waters, such as those with added vitamins and calcium, while consumers go back to the tap if all they want to do is quench their thirst."