Bottled and Sold: The History Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water by Peter H. Gleick. Washington DC: Island Press, 2010, 288 pp.
Martin W. Lewis
Obsession may not be the best word to describe Americans’ attitude toward bottled water. Few people are preoccupied with the product; many purchase it without a second thought. But therein lies the problem. As Peter Gleick amply demonstrates, packaged water comes at a surprisingly high price. People in the United States purchase nearly nine billion gallons of bottled water a year, spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a product that is virtually identical to that which freely flows from their taps. We engage in such senseless behavior, Gleick contends, because we have bought the claims of advertisers and marketers. Large beverage corporations spend heavily to disparage public water supplies and to tout, often misleadingly, their own products.
Many of the campaigns against tap water and in favor of the bottled alternative are both amusing and outrageous. As Gleick outlines, Coca-Cola, owner of the Dasani brand, once developed a “six-step program” to help the Olive Garden Restaurant chain reduce what they call “tap water incidents”: unprofitable episodes of customers ordering free refreshment. The very names of bottled brands can appear comical when juxtaposed with the source of their water: Arctic Wolf Spring water is actually bottled in New Jersey and Arctic Spring in Florida. And although the water sold under the Alaska Premium Glacier brand does indeed come from Alaska, it flows out of Pipe 111241 of the Juneau municipal water system. More humorous still are claims made by marketers of pseudo-scientifically enhanced water. Penta Water, for example, is supposedly “restructured … through molecular redefinition.” Religiously inspired water quackery comes in for well-deserved mockery. The makers of Kabbalah Water, plugged by both Madonna and Britney Spears, allege that “because of its unique crystalline structure and fractal design, [our product] is an excellent information transmitter.”
Although only a few minor companies make claims as outrageous as those from Kabbalah, many firms assert that their products are safer and more wholesome than public tap water. Tap water is easy to malign, Gleick shows, both because it was historically dangerous and because contamination incidents do occur. But municipal waterworks are closely regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which sets rigorous rules for a wide variety of impurities and acts quickly when thresholds are passed. Bottled water, in contrast, is less stringently overseen by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which sets lower standards for key contaminants such as coliform bacteria. And although the FDA does restrict some pollutants, such as lead, more stringently than the EPA, such regulations apply only to bottled water marketed across state lines. FDA inspections of major bottling plants, moreover, have revealed some significant health violations. Although it required sleuthing, Gleick was able to uncover nearly 100 incidents in which bottles had to be recalled. It is difficult to resist the author’s conclusion that bottled water, overall, is not safer than tap water.
Even if bottled water has no health advantages over tap water, it might still taste better, as its purveyors claim. Many of the large bottlers begin with municipal water, which they subject to additional filtration and other methods of supposed purification. Such procedures, however, remove the minerals that give a desirable taste. As a result, additives are necessary. Coca-Cola, Gleick reveals, “adds a carefully prepared mix of minerals … back into the water to create a finished product with a standardized taste…. Thus, Dasani from San Leandro is virtually indistinguishable from Dasani from Detroit.” But is the resulting product actually preferred by consumers? Numerous surveys show that most people cannot tell the difference between the various brands or between bottled water and tap water from high-quality municipal systems. One blind taste test actually showed that the most expensive water turned out to be the one people liked least, Gleick writes.
At first glance, spring water is a more honest product than reprocessed tap water. Spring water is typically bottled with little treatment and is thus marketed as a “natural” product. But natural filtration through aquifers does not necessarily remove all pathogenic organisms. One study found Giardia and Cryptosporidium in 20% of U.S. springs. As a result, Gleick argues, there are good reasons to be “especially concerned about the safety of spring waters.” Equally worrisome are the effects of the industry on spring-dependent ecosystems. In the arid southwest, rare oasis environments have been diminished by gargantuan bottling plants. Even in the more humid parts of the country, aquifers have dropped, sometimes desiccating wetlands.
The environmental damage caused by bottled water is by no means limited to groundwater depletion. The manufacturing and distribution of plastic bottles are energy-intensive, consuming the equivalent of between 100 and 160 million barrels of oil in 2007, Gleick says. Bottled water also generates a massive stream of plastic waste. The industry has responded to this criticism by reducing the plastic content of its bottles, by stressing recycling, and by experimenting with biodegradable containers. Such approaches, Gleick argues, may be helpful but are ultimately inadequate. So-called biode grad able bottles often degrade poorly and may end up contaminating the recycling stream. Bottling and trucking water, Gleick says, is simply much more expensive and environmentally degrading than transporting water in pipelines.
As the hidden and not-so-hidden costs of bottled water gradually come to light, a reaction against the industry has gathered strength. Cities such as San Francisco have banned municipal purchases, and a number of prominent restaurants no longer carry the product, serving plain and carbonated tap water instead. Citizens’ groups have sued springwater firms for depleting aquifers and in several instances have shut down existing and proposed waterworks. In 2008, the sales of bottled water in the United States declined for the first time. Although industry spokespeople attributed the drop to the recession, the public awareness campaign spearheaded by writers such as Gleick seems to be having an impact.
The bottled water industry is fighting back with intensified lobbying efforts, advertising campaigns, and lawsuit threats. A number of firms now trumpet their environmental responsibility. Such an approach, however, can amount to little more than “greenwashing,” with minimal actions undertaken to support grandiose claims. Fiji Water, which claims carbon neutrality, comes in for special scorn, because it ships most of its bottles halfway around the world. Still, Gleick is cautiously supportive of several smaller, self-proclaimed “ethical” companies. In particular, he cites Ethos Water, which has pledged to give 50% of its profits to organizations supporting water and sanitation projects in developing countries.
The lure of convenience
Consumers buy bottled water, Gleick writes, for four main reasons: safety, taste, style, and convenience. He debunks the first three of these rationales with ample evidence and wit. But he devotes much less attention to the issue of convenience, which is not so easily dismissed. On this score, the campaign against bottled water may face more intractable obstacles than the author realizes.
In a society as affluent as the United States, an individual bottle of water is trivially cheap for many consumers, regardless of the overall costs to the environment. And if the water in the bottle is no better than what comes out of the tap, at least it will be cold when purchased. In setting out on a trip, whether driving across the countryside or strolling through a city, few people think to pack their own sink water, and fewer still take the trouble to add ice and use an insulated container. In the United States, with its mobile lifestyle and penchant for cold beverages, bottled water is often much more convenient than tap water.
Such thoughtless convenience can be partially addressed through education about hidden costs, which is exactly what Gleick provides in Bottled and Sold. Environmentally conscious consumers, a growing cohort, will often forgo ease in the interest of sustainability. But many others will opt for expediency over responsibility every time.
Educational efforts against groundless consumer behavior also confront intrinsic human irrationality. As behavioral economists have shown, people typically think more highly of goods that they have purchased than they do of identical products that they have acquired for free. Beverage corporations may take advantage of such predictably irrational behavior, but they cannot be blamed for creating it.
Gleick argues that another way to reduce our dependence on bottled water is to invest more extensively in public supplies. High-quality water flowing at low cost through municipal pipelines will dissuade some from purchasing bottles. The issue of convenience, moreover, can be partially addressed by public water fountains. But in many areas, new fountains are no longer being installed and existing ones are not being maintained. Major public facilities, including sports stadiums, have been erected with no water outlets, effectively forcing spectators to purchase bottles. If we are to overcome our dependence on bottled water, Gleick argues, we must restore the public spout.
But as the author recognizes, merely increasing the number of fountains would not be adequate. Many people demand cold water of the highest quality and distrust any dispenser on which another person’s lips may once have rested. Gleick thus advocates a technological fix, endorsing modern “hydration stations” that include filters, coolers, variable stream heights, and more. Such top-of-the-line water fountains can be costly to manufacture and install and require maintenance and power. We are a long way, in other words, from virtually free public tap water. But Gleick tends to downplay issues of cost when discussing projects that he supports. Thus, on one page he castigates the state government of Connecticut for spending $500,000 annually on bottled water, then praises Minneapolis on the next for devoting the same sum to construct a mere 10 public fountains. Environmental auditing would be beneficial here, comparing all the costs of bottled water to those of hydration stations. I suspect that the latter would come out well ahead, but I would like to see the accounting.
A path forward
In the end, Gleick calls for a “soft path for water,” one emphasizing incentives for efficient water use, appropriate regulatory approaches, and expanded public participation in decisionmaking, in addition to expanding and renovating public water delivery systems. Unmentioned is the fact that the hydrological engineering processes and facilities necessary to provide universally high-quality drinking water are not necessarily “soft” in the environmental sense of the term. In many farm regions of the United States, tap water, whether derived from wells or municipal systems, is contaminated with nitrates and other agricultural chemicals. To provide the entire country with public water as wholesome as that of New York City or San Francisco, large dams would have to be built, rivers partially diverted, and vast new pipeline networks constructed. San Francisco’s municipal water, much touted by Gleick, flows from the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite National Park, which is widely regarded as an environmental abomination. When Gleick urges people to adopt a “drink local philosophy,” my doubts mount. Not only would Los Angeles need to shed most of its population, but even Gleick’s home city of Berkeley would not be able to maintain itself. In Berkeley and neighboring East Bay cities, local water supplies proved inadequate as far back as 1923, leading to the damming of the Mokelumne River in the Sierra Nevada and the construction of yet another trans-state pipeline.
If Gleick underplays the costs entailed by public water systems, he also occasionally exaggerates the benefits of abandoning the bottle. Springwater extraction facilities can indeed deplete aquifers, but at the national and global scales the damage that they cause is trivial compared with that of agriculture. Irrigated faming in arid environments destroys vast ecosystems—the Aral Sea is a good example—whereas water bottlers merely threaten local habitats. Gleick dreams of a day when aquatic ecosystems around the world are restored, but for that to happen we must expand our scope well beyond that of the bottled water industry.
The objections raised above do not in any way discredit Gleick’s basic thesis. The evidence that he marshals convinces me that our current level of reliance on bottled water is economically senseless and environmentally destructive and that enhanced investments in public facilities would be beneficial. Despite his occasional hyperbole, Gleick’s overall position is tempered and reasonable. He has no desire to enact any bans, and he does see a place, if a minor one, for bottled water. If he sometimes avoids difficult discussions of inevitable tradeoffs, such omissions are understandable. A more comprehensive and balanced account would not appeal to a large audience; constantly qualifying one’s arguments is a poor strategy for selling books. But to convince skeptics, the more dispassionate approach of environmental economics, which tallies costs and benefits, hidden and overt, on both sides of any issue at hand, has much to recommend it.
Martin W. Lewis (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior lecturer at Stanford University and the author of Green Delusions: A Environmentalist Critique of Radical Environmentalism. He blogs at Geocurrents.info.