When water isn't free

October 31, 2008

Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale & Why We Bought It

By Elizabeth Royte

Scribe, 2008

248 pages, $32.95 (pb)

Is drinking bottled water the "moral equivalent of driving a Hummer", asks Elizabeth Royte in Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It.

Pretty close, she concludes, in her investigation of the "outrageous success" of the bottled water industry, with its huge costs to the environment, and its prices thousands of times higher than tap water.

One bottle at a time, the planet takes a hit. The plastic bottles add their own giant galaxy to the expanding universe of garbage — in the US, 50 billion bottled water containers a year are discarded.

Made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET), most are buried in landfill where they leach toxins and take a thousand years to biodegrade, or are incinerated producing toxic by-products, which, if sequestered, end up in landfill.

PET is derived from oil and 17 million barrels of global-warming, irreplaceable oil are consumed annually to make water bottles for the US market alone, enough to fuel 1.3 million cars for a year.

Add in the oil to fill and transport the bottles (a billion bottles a week on tens of thousands of trucks, trains and ships) and the "greenhouse footprint" of bottled water takes on BigFoot proportions — one quarter of the average bottle would have to be filled with oil to cover its production, transport and disposal.

Royte notes the irony of bottled water, whose labels depict snow-capped mountains and glaciers, contributing to global warming that melts those same snow-capped mountains and glaciers.

Nor is the "water footprint" of bottled water inconsequential — it takes 2.6 litres of tap water to produce one litre of Coca-Cola or PepsiCo filtered water (Coke and Pepsi are the two market heavies dominating the filtered tap water market that accounts for almost half of all bottled water sales).

PET contains other hidden surprises. Chemical additives for flexibility, colour and strength can leach into the water, which is often found to contain potentially dangerous contaminants such as arsenic, antimony, bromine, pesticides, heavy metals, coliform bacteria and disinfection by-products, some exceeding safe levels.

The bacteria count of bottled water can start low but rapidly multiply in the warmth of closed containers sitting for months in warehouses and on shelves.

It is hard to get a precise handle on the health threat from bottled water, however, because the bottled water industry is one of the least regulated. Tap water supplied by public water authorities is regularly monitored and the results made public, but the bottled water industry has spent millions in lobbying the US government to keep such information off its labels.

The US Food and Drug Administration does not require springwater bottlers to test for bacteria and it subjects bottled water factories to only infrequent inspection (once every five to ten years), testing for only selected contaminants.

The industry is allowed to get away with self-regulation. The industry trade body, the International Bottled Water Association, conducts more frequent inspections buts its standards are not legally enforceable. Consumers have no way of learning the results and not every bottler is a member (Coke and Pepsi aren't).

Nor is the harvesting of springwater or artesian water from underground aquifers a harmless process. Every action in an ecosystem, says Royte, has an impact. Removing water from a local watershed and transporting it far away means not returning that water to the local area via the hydrologic cycle.

The result is a potential cascade of bad effects — reduced stream flows, oxygen-deprived and warmer streams, disrupted food chains, dwindling fish populations, shrinking lakes, drying rivers, changes to wetland vegetation, and the invasion of freshwater aquifers in coastal areas by sea water and land subsidence.

Bottled water has smoothly flowed under the radar of regulation and environmental impact assessment, an important factor in its extraordinary success.

From its century-old niche beginnings when Perrier sold bottled mineral water as a therapeutic beverage to the wealthy, it has profitably mainstreamed with sales soaring from one billion litres annually in the early 1970s to 200 billion litres by 2006, growing at 10% a year into a global US$60 billion-a-year business. Profit margins are enormous — bottled water costs 240 to 10,000 times as much as tap.

For one bottle of Evian, the average North American could buy 4000 litres of tap.

The rise of bottled water has also been propelled by "one of the greatest ever marketing coups" — promoting bottled water with its nature images of mountains, streams and waterfalls while playing up the health-risk myths of tap water.

Bottled water, concludes Royte, is a giant scam. This is especially true in developed countries where tap regularly wins in blind-taste tests against brand-name waters, is safe, is closely and publicly monitored, has a relatively small "carbon footprint", and is not designed to generate exorbitant profits.

But bottled water's more insidious sin, argues Royte, is its symbolic role in the global privatisation of water.

Safe, clean water is a finite resource, fundamental to life, and should be a basic human right, says Royte, so the question of who controls water matters a great deal. High-priced bottled water, with a bar-code slapped on it, sets the stage for "acceptance of the complete corporate takeover of water".

Water privatisation, like that of electricity, transport or other essential services is another battle arena in the war of private against public.

Water privatisation, says Royte, means the decline of standards (as cost-cutting takes priority over quality), the rise of prices and the loss of political control over a basic resource.

Get people in the industrialised world accustomed to paying for bottled water, says Royte, and they will be less likely to balk at paying much higher amounts for privatised tap water.

Royte is aware that bottled water's environmental and social costs are less significant than the water depredations of big industry and agribusiness. Much more water, she notes, is wasted in farming beef and manufacturing cars, for example — the water footprint of a 100 gram hamburger is a whopping 2,300 litres.

So, people, she concludes, should eat less meat, and, at the capitalist end of the spectrum, there should be a more sustainable allocation of surface and ground water to big users. There should also be a prohibition on growing water-hungry crops (rice, cotton) in water-stressed areas and industry should be forced to use more recycled water.

Reclaimed sewerage water should be used for non-potable purposes (such as watering golf courses and crops). There should be more water-efficiency (such as drip irrigation rather than flood irrigation, fixing up leaks and old pipes in public water infrastructure).

Polluters should be hounded, development in critical watersheds curbed, and urban areas revegetated. Water should be kept under public control as a matter of survival.

We should all drink to that — but make it tap, not bottled.

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