The Trouble with Bottled Water | EcoCenter: Greener Living | Smithsonian
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Bottles washed up on a beach (iStockphoto/Jeroen Peys)

The Trouble with Bottled Water

Elizabeth Royte reflects on the backlash against commercializing a natural resource and responds to reader comments

smithsonian.com

In the spring of 2007, the quietly simmering backlash against bottled water began to boil. Responding to well-organized pressure groups, first one, and then a dozen cities across the nation canceled their contracts for bottled-water delivery. Upscale restaurants struck fancy waters from their menus, and college students conducted taste tests intended to prove, once and for all, that most people can't tell the difference between bottled water and tap.

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Suddenly bottled water was big news. Every time I opened a newspaper, magazine or Web browser, there was another story announcing that this harmless indulgence is anything but. On the lookout for this sort of material, I nearly drowned in the tidal wave of eco-criticism. With a mounting sense of anticipation—how far will the attacks go?—I watched as reporters, using statistics from academics and environmental groups, blasted away at the bottled-water industry. But curiously, their focus wasn't water, at first. It was oil.

Specifically, the 17 million barrels it takes each year to make water bottles for the U.S. market. (Plastic-making also generates emissions of nickel, ethylbenzene, ethylene oxide, and benzene, but because we're in the thick of the global-warming movement, not the environmental-carcinogen movement, this doesn't get much play.) That's enough oil to fuel 1.3 million cars for a year.

Is 17 million barrels a lot? Yes and no. Total U.S. oil consumption is 20 million barrels a day. But the oil that goes into water bottles themselves doesn't include the energy needed to fill them or to move them to consumers. Every week, a billion bottles snake through the country on tens of thousands of trucks, trains and ships. (In 2007, Poland Spring alone burned 928,226 gallons of diesel fuel.) And then there's the energy it takes to chill water in fridges and to haul the empties off to landfills. It adds up.

Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, estimates that the total energy required for every bottle's production, transport and disposal is equivalent, on average, to filling that bottle a quarter of the way with oil. His finding, undisputed by the water-bottling industry, shocks me. Oil, as we know, is a nonrenewable resource, mostly imported. The hunt for more oil is politically dangerous and expensive, and can be environmentally ruinous.

And then there's the water itself—increasingly important as we enter what's been called the post-Peak Water era. Manufacturing and filling plastic water bottles consumes twice as much water as the bottle will ultimately contain, in part because bottle-making machines are cooled by water. Plants that use reverse osmosis to purify tap water lose between three and nine gallons of water—depending on how new the filters are and what they remove—for every filtered gallon that ends up on the shelf. Cleaning a bottling plant also requires a great deal of municipal water, especially if the end product is flavored. On average, only 60 to 70 percent of the water used by bottling plants ends up on supermarket shelves: the rest is waste.

These costs—water, energy, oil—aren't unique to bottled water. It takes 48 gallons of water to make a gallon of beer, four gallons of water to make one of soda. Even a cow has a water footprint, drinking four gallons of water to produce one gallon of milk. But those other beverages aren't redundant to the calorie-free (and caffeine- and coloring-free) liquid that comes out of the tap, and that's an important distinction.

As 2007 wound down, bottled water sales slowed a bit, but it's hard to say if it was due to activist pressure, cool weather, high prices (oil costs more) or, as Nestlé Waters North America CEO Kim Jeffery says, a lack of natural disasters, which always spur demand. In any event, billions of cases of water continued to march out of supermarkets, and millions of bottles dribbled from everyplace else.

"People don't go backwards," says Arthur Von Wiesenberger, author of The Pocket Guide to Bottled Water and a consultant to the beverage industry. "Once they've developed a taste for bottled water, they won't give it up." Indeed, new bottling plants opened this past year in the United States, Europe, India and Canada; and entrepreneurs announced plans to bottle water in the Amazon, among other fragile landscapes, while Nestlé—the Swiss conglomerate that owns Poland Spring, Calistoga and many other U.S. brands of spring water, not to mention the French Perrier—continues to buy and explore new spring sites.

Overall, Americans drank 29.3 gallons of bottled water per capita in 2007, up from 27.6 gallons in 2006, with the 2007 wholesale revenue for bottled water in the U.S. exceeding $11.7 billion.

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