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Message in a bottle

It’s just so easy. Waiting for the bus to work. Heading to a sunny park in the summer. Getting ready to sit in an airport for three futile hours. It’s all too easy to grab a bottle of water – it’s cheap, it’s cold and clean and it won’t rot your teeth. For many of us it has become the beverage of choice – it seems to make perfect sense.

Sales of bottled water, which was practically unheard of 40 years ago, have skyrocketed over the past 30 years, faster than any other kind of drink. The Beverage Marketing Corporation estimates that US bottled water consumption jumped 25 times from 1976 to 2007, from 354 million gallons to more than 9 billion gallons. Global sales continue to rise about 8 per cent annually, and in developing countries even more – about 18 per cent a year in China. About a fifth of North Americans rely exclusively on bottled water.

But as normal as it seems, bottled water makes little sense – environmentally or economically. Manufacturing plastic bottles uses enormous amounts of fossil fuels. Shipping them chugs out more greenhouse gases. We spend hundreds of times more for them than we do on tap water. Most of the bottles are not recycled.

And the punch line: about 40 per cent of bottled water comes from municipal water supplies. It’s just tap water.

Activists and market research consultants alike think bottled water is due for a backlash. ‘We can smell blood,’ says Jeanette Longfield, campaigner with the British NGO Sustain. ‘Water bottles may become like plastic bags – people will not want to be seen with one.’

Tracking exactly how much oil is used to make PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic for bottled water worldwide is difficult. There is no single regulatory body. But a few estimates have been made.

Ecological footprint

The Pacific Institute in the US has calculated that each year Americans buy 29 billion bottles of water which use up 17 million barrels of oil. Each bottle carries an ecological footprint equivalent to filling it a quarter full with oil. Plus manufacturing each ton of PET produces three tons of CO2 – so 2.5 million tons are released each year. And that’s just in the US. If the entire world drank as much bottled water, we would need a billion barrels of oil per year to supply demand.

Eighty per cent of the PET produced in the US is used by three beverage companies: Nestlé, Pepsi and Coca-Cola. Each has its own brands of bottled water – Coke has Dasani, Pepsi Aquafina, and Nestlé Pure Life and Poland Spring.

Canada’s Polaris Institute has outlined exactly where the fossil fuels for these American plastic water bottles come from. ‘I wanted to draw a clear line between the bottled water companies and the big oil interests, to show people that when they buy a bottle of Dasani or Aquafina they are supporting these companies,’ says Polaris researcher Richard Girard. He found that the leading producers of ethylene, the main raw feedstock for PET plastic, include ChevronPhillips, Exxon, Shell, British Petroleum and Dow Chemical – some of the world’s most prolific polluters.

Once bottled, water is shipped, sometimes thousands of kilometres – Fiji water, for example, up to 10,000 kilometres – before being drunk. The Earth Policy Institute in the US estimates that a quarter of bottled water crosses international borders.

And then? Despite public perception very few bottles are recycled. In the US about 85 per cent of PET water bottles escape recycling and end up as litter, or in landfills where they will take thousands of years to break down, or in incinerators releasing carcinogens like dioxins into the atmosphere. Britain is on a par with the US with 17 per cent of bottles recycled and Canada a bit better with 36 per cent.

But even those that are collected are not always recycled close by: about 40 to 50 per cent of PET bottles are shipped to developing countries – usually China – resulting in the release of even more greenhouse gases along the way.

Despite industry claims of working to improve recycling, the proportion of recycled plastic in PET bottles remains very low, says Girard. ‘It is cheaper for them to produce bottles from virgin PET.’

An entire generation of children is growing up thinking that tap water is ‘yucky’. They will not have the same commitment to safe drinking water that their parents may have had

What’s more, the industry actively lobbies against bottle bills that charge consumers a refundable fee, says Wenonah Hauter, of the Washington-based NGO Food and Water Watch. The 11 states in the US that have bottle bills recycle two to three times more than the other 39 states.

‘It is very difficult to pass a bottle bill – retail outlets and big soft drink companies use their economic clout to drum up support for their cause by using our system of legalized bribery,’ says Hauter.

It varies from region to region but bottled water costs around 500 times what tap water does. Gallon for gallon it costs more than gasoline.

In the blind ‘taste tests’ Andrea Harden, water campaigner with the Polaris Institute, sets up people struggle to tell the difference between bottled water and tap water.

No wonder: up to 40 per cent of bottled water is just tap water with a little extra filtration or added salts – Pepsi’s Aquafina says so right on the label. A better example of ‘a license to print money’ could hardly be found.

So why do we buy it? ‘It has a perceived social value, rather than a true market value,’ says Harden. In other words: it is fashionable.

‘The bottled water industry has put a lot of money and effort into cultivating an image that their product is pristine, pure and safe,’ she adds. ‘They have sold the public on the idea that bottled water is healthier and safer than tap water.’

In fact, bottled water is no safer, and in all likelihood less safe, than tap water. While municipal water supplies in Western countries may be checked 300 times a month bottled water plants may be inspected only once every three years. The US Food and Drug Administration only checks bottled water sold in the same state in which it is bottled (about 30 to 40 per cent of sales) – and then only once a year.

Potential carcinogens

Contamination and product recalls are not uncommon, including the potential carcinogens bromate in Dasani in 2004 and naphthalene in Volvic in 2005. In the US, a 1999 survey by the Natural Resources Defense Council found that a third of bottled water brands violated state or industry standards in at least one sample, for such appetizing contaminants as faecal coliform bacteria, E coli and arsenic.

The popularity of bottled water could have consequences far wider than just the fleecing of unwitting consumers.

‘Bottled water undermines public trust in our tap water,’ says Wenonah Hauter. Safe drinking water is a public good and one that we should expect our governments to provide. If people are accustomed to forking out for expensive bottles there is little incentive for governments to invest in maintaining public water supplies.

Food and Water Watch estimates that every year the US Government falls short by $20 billion on the amount needed to maintain municipal water supplies (compare this to the $15 billion Americans spend every year on bottled water). Leaks, burst mains and boil advisories are becoming ever more common.

Meanwhile, new buildings such as schools frequently lack drinking fountains. ‘An entire generation of children is growing up thinking that tap water is “yucky”. They will not have the same commitment to safe drinking water that their parents may have had,’ says Hauter.

All of which is setting a dangerous precedent. ‘Bottled water sets the stage for water privatization,’ argues Andrea Harden. ‘It cultivates consumer willingness to pay a high price for water and water being used for profit.’ Privatization is not an imagined threat: big European companies like Suez have been aggressively trying to secure control of North American water services for years.

Even when public water is not privatized, large corporate bottlers are often given dirt cheap permits to drain groundwater supplies. Nestlé operations in Mecosta, Michigan and Guelph, Canada – to name just two – have drawn public opposition and outrage at local water being shipped away, leaving the water table and wetlands depleted. Nestle’s contract for a plant in McCloud, California, would have the multinational pay rates 22 times lower than what local residents pay.

With so little reason to drink bottled water, indications are that the tide of enthusiasm for the product is turning. 

‘Usually when you ask people to do the right thing you’re having to persuade them to pay more – but in this instance it’s ludicrously cheap,’ says water campaigner Jeanette Longfield from the British NGO, Sustain.

City governments are addressing the undeniable folly of spending municipal funds on bottled water when they already foot the bill for the taps. Last year, after realizing it was spending $100,000 on bottled water a year, Liverpool’s municipal council banned bottles from city offices. San Francisco did the same to save the $500,000 it was spending yearly and mayors worldwide are following suit.

Other cities are actively trying to change public attitudes. New York launched a civic campaign in 2007 and Chicago went one step further by adding a five cent tax on all bottled water sales. Parisians have tackled the issue by re-branding tap water as chic, dubbing it ‘Eau de Paris’. And in Italy, home to the world’s first public water works but now the world’s leading consumer of bottled water, public campaigns are urging people to spurn bottled water and drink from the nation’s iconic water fountains.

Change is brewing in the public as well. Students are establishing ‘bottled-water free zones’ in universities across Canada. And, as ‘green is the new black,’ as we so often hear, high-end restaurants are starting to prove their green credentials by serving free filtered tap water.

‘This is quite a big trend,’ says Dave Jago of the British market research firm Mintel. ‘We predict a backlash. It is becoming unfashionable to serve bottled water.’

Which may in fact be the best way to change public behaviour: re-brand bottled water as unfashionable. Because it was nothing but truly brilliant marketing that persuaded us to buy it in the first place.

Zoe Cormier is a freelance writer and science journalist based in London.

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