Bottled Water Syndrome

In mid-January, I received a mass email asking me to donate $10 for bottled water and other supplies for participants in an important immigrant rights march in Phoenix. Given the ever-repressive and cruel political climate in Arizona for immigrants (especially unauthorized ones), I was unequivocally in support of the mobilization. Nonetheless I was taken aback by a request to contribute even nominally to an effort to buy bottles of water for what turned out to be, according to some estimates, more than 20,000 people.

Certainly there are other ways—ecologically sustainable and less expensive ones—to provide water for such a multitude. How, why, and to what effects bottled water became the preferred way to do so for myriad people and places far beyond a single event in Phoenix is the focus of Elizabeth Royte’s powerful and compelling book, Bottlemania: Big Business, Local Springs and the Battle Over America’s Drinking Water.

I’ve never been a fan of bottled water, considering it ecologically damaging—in the United States alone 30-40 million single-serve bottles per day end up as litter or in landfills—and economically foolhardy, another capitalistic trick to con us into purchasing  something from profiteers that we don’t shouldn’t have to. But as Royte powerfully illustrates, the increasing commodification of drinking water is far more complex, and dangerous, than at least I appreciated.

Until recently, the sale of single-serve bottles of water was rare. While the United States had regional bottled water companies as early as the nineteenth century, such entities mainly supplied homes and offices with large containers of the life-sustaining liquid (for water coolers, for instance). This situation began to change in the 1980s with the entry of Perrier into the U.S. market and its successful television advertising which stressed that a little luxury—a bottle of the French water—was available to everyone.

Other companies, like Evian and Vittel, followed, employing the likes of Madonna and fashion models, to help equate bottled water with personal health, fitness, and glamour. That, combined with the invention of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic—which made water easily portable—helped the U.S. bottled-water industry boom: between 1990 and 1997 its annual sales increased from $115 million to $4 billion. (By 2006, the figure was $10.8 billion; globally bottled water’s income was $60 billion.)

This dramatic increase is the outgrowth of “one of the greatest marketing coups of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries,” asserts Royte. What makes it all the more extraordinary is that in the vast majority of cases “tap water meets or exceeds federal health and safety standards, regularly wins in blind taste tests against name-brand waters, and costs 240 to 10,000 times less than bottled water.” Part of the reason it has succeeded, contends Royte, is “that bottled water plays into our ever-growing laziness and impatience.”

This corporate-driven success contributes to the demise of water as a public good. Take the increasingly rare public drinking fountain, for instance: Royte tells of visiting a Midwestern college where there is no drinking-water fountain in its gym.

Bottled water’s rise has changed behaviors even among those whom you might expect would have an alternative consciousness. While I was reading Royte’s book, I accompanied a group of students from my institution on a visit to a geography department at a university elsewhere in New York State, a department with a strong focus on issues of environmental sustainability. At the luncheon, the department offered bottled water as one of the beverage options.

The profound change in how so many of us consume water has consequences far beyond what we imbibe. Among other things, it increases our consumption of oil—and all its attendant detrimental impacts: Royte reports that it takes 17 million barrels of oil each year to make water bottles for the U.S. market alone—enough to fuel 1.3 million cars for a year. Meanwhile, according to one estimate, a quarter of a water bottle’s worth of oil is required to produce each bottle, transport and depose of it.

Royte focuses much of her energy on Poland Springs—the Nestlé-owned company that is the largest U.S. producer of bottled spring water—and the struggles and controversies surrounding its activities in and around Fryeburg, Maine, where it is based. However, her important and compelling book is much more than an examination of the bottled water industry.  It is first and foremost about the health and viability of drinking water and thus human society as a whole. As Royte points out, “We can live without oil, but we can’t live without water.”

Already for all-too-many across the planet, access to safe drinking water is far from assured. As Royte informs the reader, “only 3 percent [of the earth’s water supply] is fresh, and of that fraction only a third is available for human use,” with the rest stored in glaciers and the like.

Not surprisingly that fraction is not equitably distributed based on needs. As such, more than a billion people do not have sufficient access to potable water. And according to U.N. projections, increased demand and water pollution, combined with climate-change-induced drought and reduced recharge of groundwater supplies will lead to two of every three of the planet’s denizens lacking sufficient access by 2025. “Those two out of three won’t just be thirsty;” writes Royte. “[A]lready some 5.1 million people a year die from waterborne diseases, many of which stem from lack of sanitation and its resulting water pollution. That number is going to spike.”

Among the major culprits of water pollution is industrial agriculture with its heavy reliance on synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and insecticides, the runoff from which ends up in the water supply. Atrazine, for example, an herbicide that has been shown to cause birth defects, reproductive disorders, and cancer in lab animals, has contaminated, according to Royte, drinking water sources “in nearly every major Midwestern city, and well water and groundwater in states where the compound isn’t even used.”

The pernicious irony of the degradation of the water commons is that it helps to undermine trust in public water supplies and facilitate their neglect, thus driving more people—especially the relatively wheel-heeled who can afford it—to embrace the bottled water option. In 2001, La’o Hamutuk, a non-governmental organization in East Timor, for example, calculated that the United Nations mission in charge of governing the territory was spending more than $10,000 per day (almost $4 million annually) on bottled water. (And this was the figure just for the international peacekeeping troops present in the country—to say nothing of the water purchased for the non-military U.N. personnel.) According to various estimates, it would have cost $2-10 million at the time to rehabilitate the entire water purification and delivery system of Dili, the now-independent country’s capital, and provide potable water to nearly all of the city’s more than 100,000 residents.

Royte would see such behavior as part of an “insidious trend,” one in which it has become “normal to pay high prices for things that used to cost little, or nothing”—or to go the route of the private rather than the public. But ultimately, preserving or improving public water supplies is the option we must collectively pursue as “too many people can afford to drink nothing but.” Otherwise, Royte warns, we run the risk of a world in which there is “a two-tiered system—bottled for the rich, bilge for the poor.”

Given the ubiquity of bottled water, it might seem like it doesn’t matter if the organizers of one mass demonstration, a single geography department, or a particular U.N. mission choose bottled water, rather than embracing public water options that were the unquestioned norm in the very recent past. But these individual decisions add up and, as such, have a profound impact on people’s livelihoods and the environment. Given the necessity of water for life, do we really have a choice as to what we should do?

JOSEPH NEVINS teaches geography at Vassar College. His most recent book is Dying to Live: A Story of U.S. Immigration in an Age of Global Apartheid (City Lights Books, 2008). He can be reached at