During the last week of one of the steamiest Julys that the U.S. has ever seen, environmental activists and lawmakers in Massachusetts rallied in front of the statehouse to urge Governor Deval Patrick to spend less money on bottled water -- and more on upgrading the state’s drinking water systems. In Santa Fe, New Mexico, Mayor David Coss announced a plan to end municipal purchases of bottled water. Similar moves to cut back on bottled water use -- and save money -- have been taken in Colorado, New York, Illinois, and Virginia. And on the consumer front, a number of states are considering new measures to tax bottled water as a soft drink.
The idea that more Americans could turn back to the tap has so frazzled the International Bottled Water Association that yesterday its consumer website, www.BottledWaterMatters.com, released a YouTube video attempting to reframe its corporate losses as a public disservice. In "Bottled Water: Show Your Support," a teen-age girl talks about the value she places on bottled water and her fears of the “people who want to take your choice [to drink it] away.” Sign the petition! she urges. “Let your legislators know that bottled water matters to you.”
And why should it matter? Because, according to the "Show Your Support" pledge, bottled water is a “safe, healthy, high-quality beverage choice … a modern-day choice,” and one we make when we want “a beverage that doesn't contain calories, caffeine, sugar, artificial flavors or colors, alcohol and other ingredients.” Also, it’s packaged in a fully-recyclable plastic container, the petition adds.
Problem is, the industry’s safety and environmental claims are all wet. In his new book Bottled & Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water, author Peter H. Gleick points out thatwhile our tap water is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency under the Safe Drinking Water Act, bottled water is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a food product (even though it often comes from the very same source as tap water).
Gleick says there is no reason tap and bottled water should fall under different standards, and he points to some serious discrepancies and deficiencies in how bottled water is regulated and who does the monitoring. A 2009 study by the Government Accountability Office found that, of the limited number of times that the FDA inspected water bottlers between 2000 and 2008, the agency found problems 35 percent of the time. (Read more in my June OnEarth Q&A with Gleick.)
Furthermore, most consumers aren’t aware that the water in their bottles is often just reprocessed tap water. And why should they be? Bottlers aren’t required to identify the source of their water or describe how they treat it. Labels decked out with pretty mountain scenes or names conjuring purity and nature are supposed to be enough. (In fact, Gleick goes on to report, a brand of water called “Arctic Spring” comes from Florida, while “Arctic Falls Bottled Water” and “Glacier Mountain Natural Spring” come from New Jersey. And similar bottled water green-washing efforts are rampant.)
And how about the waistline-shrinking power of water that the IBWA is trying to claim? "Bottled water is among the healthiest packaged beverages on the store shelf and people should not be discouraged from choosing it, especially when obesity, heart disease and diabetes are at the current high rates," said Tom Lauria, IBWA vice president of communications. But according to consumer reports by the U.S. Department of Commerce, we aren’t drinking any fewer calorie-packed soft drinks in favor of bottled water. In fact, the numbers show that we are buying more of both, and drinking less of everything else -- most notably, tap water (in addition to milk, coffee, tea, fruit juice, and alcohol).
Lastly, there’s the issue of the bottles themselves. Just making the plastic for a liter bottle of water takes three to four more liters of water. And that’s to make no mention of the fossil fuels consumed in producing, chilling, and transporting those bottles. (It’s another reason to think twice about buying water bottled in Fiji.) And what of that “recyclable” plastic? Very little of it is recycled. Only 11 of our 50 states even have bottle bills -- laws that give us a nickel for every bottle we return to the store. Even worse, only six of those 11 states apply the deposit to water bottles. As a result, Americans recycle far fewer water bottles compared to soda cans and the like. In part, we owe this to the beverage lobby, which has worked hard to fight the expansion of bottle bill laws.
The bottled water industry is trying its darnedest to convince us that its product is a necessity, not a luxury. Let’s hope that what are really necessities -- drinking water, and repairing the laws and systems that deliver it to our taps -- don’t get drowned in this silly new campaign.
Jenny Shalant is a multimedia journalist and web editor at the Wildlife Conservation Society, based at the Bronx Zoo. She received a master's degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where she covered the environment for Uptown Radio, and has written...Jenny Shalant is a multimedia journalist and web editor at the Wildlife Conservation Society, based at the Bronx Zoo. She received a master's degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where she covered the environment for Uptown Radio, and has written for Wildlife Conservation and AZA’s Connect magazines.MoreClose