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Sunday, 27 July 2008 23:39

Elizabeth Royte Asks If Bottled Water Is Worth It?

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A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW

BOTTLEMANIA:
HOW WATER WENT ON SALE AND WHY WE BOUGHT IT
JULY __, 2008


BuzzFlash: Elizabeth, you've written Bottlemania: How Water Went On Sale And Why We Bought It. Many years ago, I was in the Coca-Cola Museum in Atlanta. And I was absolutely fascinated because it very forthrightly gave the history of how a carbonated beverage that was invented in the late 1800s became an internationally recognized and consumed commodity. Yet it has no nutritional value. It's not needed by anyone. What you see in the Coca-Cola Museum is how they created a sense of aspirational need. Not need for the product, but what they associate with the product through advertising. Is there a parallel to that with bottled water?

Elizabeth Royte: Certainly. The hundreds of millions of dollars spent on bottled water advertising were aspirational. They used models and they used celebrities and they used athletes to get people to think that by consuming this product, they would be more like these healthy, beautiful people. They sent us subtle and not-so-subtle messages that drinking water would make us thinner, or have shinier hair, or do yoga poses better.

BuzzFlash: And isn't there an idea of purity associated with this water? It's getting back to nature. The implication is that this water is better than the water that you could drink out of your faucet, which may or may not be true.

Elizabeth Royte: Right. They use images and words to suggest that the water is more pure or more natural. It's coming straight from nature to you.

BuzzFlash: Why is this bad for the environment?

Elizabeth Royte: It takes 17 million barrels of oil to make the bottles used in this country for one year's worth of bottled water. And it takes even more oil to transport the water around, to keep the water chilled in the refrigerators, and to send trucks around to collect the empty bottles for disposal or recycling. Some anti-bottled water groups had complained that pumping ground water to fill these bottles, for the spring water brands, has depleted aquifers and dried up wetlands, lowered water tables, dried up wells, and, in some cases, harmed fish populations because they're taking water from headwater streams. So they're taking cold fresh water that is great for fish eggs.

Those have been some of the complaints. I'm not saying that it's substantiated. It's very difficult to link water extraction at one point with harm to the surrounding environment. Those are the charges opponents have made.

The other aspect to the bottles is that people mostly don't recycle them. Less than 15% of bottles make it back into recycling systems. The rest of the bottles are being buried in landfills or burned in incinerators where they have various negative environmental impacts. If they're not burned, they're often littered. It's very difficult to walk around a city and not see empty bottles lying in the street, or in waterways, or drifting out into the great garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean.

BuzzFlash: We live in Chicago and generally Chicago tap water is known as being quite good in terms of purity and not having too many harmful contaminants. I know that's not true for every city, and you deal with the issue of public water systems and public water supply. But the logic to me when I see a truck delivering these cases of water, and I see them in the supermarkets and see them sold at the convenience food stores, is that it takes a tremendous amount of gasoline and resources just to move all this water around, when I could just go to my sink and get it.

Elizabeth Royte: Drinking water from your tap is essentially a zero waste proposition. There is no container to dispose of. There is no truck delivering that water. It's coming through pipes that were built with public money, and it's delivering water to millions of people at the same time. There was a study done recently that compared the footprint of bottled water versus tap water. They looked at tap from various sourcess - whether you drank groundwater and they looked at bottled water coming from springs or being forced from municipal supplies. And the bottled water had an impact that was hundreds of times higher, even up to thousands of times higher, depending on what you were comparing. So even at the best, it was a hundred times worse.

BuzzFlash: I know there's a range of bottled waters, and some of it is actually from springs, I think. One of the major suppliers a couple of years ago actually got caught using "enhanced tap water" and selling it as bottled water, implying that it was from a spring but it was really just tap water.

Elizabeth Royte: The two best selling waters in this country are Coke's Dasani and Pepsi's Aquafina. They are both from municipal supplies that are then run through filters before being bottled. Neither Aquafina nor Dasani said on the label where the water came from. But they had a mountain like image on the bottle. I can't remember what Aquafina's label looks like exactly. I've blocked it from my mind. But Coke decided that they would say that their water is from water supplies. But Pepsi hasn't agreed to change their label.

BuzzFlash: So if we buy either of those two products, we're essentially buying what is mostly the water we can get from our tap, plus some filtration.

Elizabeth Royte: I don't agree with that actually, because they are doing microfilters and many different stages of carbon filters and then ultraviolet light. And then ______ for more different sections. And then the water goes back out into pipes that are 30, 50 or a hundred years old. So that is for ____________ with some of the anti-bottle groups - it's just tap water. _________ different from tap water. Much more ____________. They're trying to sell back to us. We can say no.

BuzzFlash: Am I really going to be healthier by drinking either of those two specific tap waters?

Elizabeth Royte: I would say no. And there is a chance it could be less healthy because bottled water is far less recently inspected than tap water. Your tap water in Chicago is tested like tens of thousands of times a year, and you can find out what the test reveals because you have a right to know what's in the report if you want to. That's the law, and the EPA says that they have to provide this information. And if you don't have the report they mailed, you can look it up online and find out.

Bottled water is inspected fairly infrequently. The FDA has less than one full-time person visiting bottled water plants across the country. And the results of those inspections aren't made public. The companies aren't obliged to let us know what they discovered or what was discovered during the inspections.

BuzzFlash: Now in your book you deal with a dispute that broke out in the area that supplies the water that actually comes from the Polish Spring water. Can you describe some of the issues that were involved in that dispute?

Elizabeth Royte: It does come from a spring in a town of Poland. The brand is Polish Spring. It's quite old. It started bottling in 1845. But ___ bought Poland Spring in the 1990s. As the market had grown, it became hard to find new sources of water, they say, to meet market demand. So they're going from town to town and buying up water rights. In Maine, the law that covers groundwater says that if you own the property, you can pump as much water as you want. They went to the town of Cyberg[?] and they started pumping water from a privately owned water company. The town had no say in this matter because the water company owned the wells. They were taking four times more water than the town itself uses. People started counting the trucks moving in and out of town, and they became alarmed. They tried to put the brakes on this deal and found they had no control over what was going on in this watershed. They passed moratoriums on pumping. They tried to pass some water ordinances to get some control back. And then the company essentially wanted to build some wells in an adjacent town, and wanted to pipe the water underground to the town of Cyberg, and then load the water in the tanker trucks and tank it over or truck it over to the bottling plant.

The people who lived in this rural area of Cyberg said no - we don't want these trucks in our neighborhood. This is a low impact zoning, the rural area, and so the planning board said no to the permit. Nestle appealed, and their appeal board agreed with the original decision. And Nestle decided to take the town to court to challenge. It actually happened twice - that Nestle sued the town. And it's within the courts right now.

People in town are worried about losing their water. There's one gentleman in particular I read about whose well has gone dry a few times from overpumping. He also blames overpumping for excessive growth of weeds on the bottom of his pond. He claims that pollutants in the pond are more concentrated because there's less water going in, resulting all these weeds. Other people object to the truck traffic. Others say that Nestle is paying very little for the waters and they're making a killing on it. The township needs some economic benefit.

And then there are people who say: Wait a minute. This water is a renewable resource. Nestle is a good company. They're giving jobs to people, and let's work with them. Let's encourage them to build a bottling plant in our town. So the situation is quite heated. There are people writing letters to the editor, and some neighbors cross the street when they see other people. It's very divisive - the whole issue in the town.

BuzzFlash: And I believe that this Nestle plant involved about 70 trucks a day transporting water.

Elizabeth Royte: Fifty in and fifty out, so a hundred trucks that are on the road.

BuzzFlash: A lot has been written about large companies trying to privatize otherwise public processes. This is a sort of variation on that. I mean, in most places, we do pay a water bill, so we contribute to the public common use of water. We're paying really not so much for the water but for the cost of delivering it, which is done by the municipality. It's not done by private corporation.

But what if I go into the convenience store and I pay a dollar-forty for a plastic container of water, I'm paying a private company for my water. So in a way, this is a back-end privatization. I'm now giving to a private corporation money for what, traditionally, for thousands of years of the human species, has been free.

Elizabeth Royte: Well, the rain falls from the skies for free. But collecting this rainwater has costs, and treating it isn't cheap. And it's costly to maintain the delivery system. We have between 250,000 and 300,000 water main breaks a year. Whenever a water main breaks, there's the risk of contamination of water. And as more and more pollutants wash in from developments, we're going to need better resources. We are going to have to pay more money to protect the watershed. We'll need to do a better job of cleaning up pollution.

BuzzFlash: The taxpayer has to assume the cost for the distribution of water to the home site or the workplace setting. The alternative is paying outside companies to go to Poland Springs with trucks to pick up the water in a big water tanker, and then have it go through filtration or whatever, and put it in a bottle. Then another truck picks it up and distributes it.

Elizabeth Royte: It's very inefficient compared to delivering tap water. The other important point is that these private companies aren't answerable to the public. You have a right to know what's going on with your tap water. When it's a publicly owned company, you can find out what's going on, and they will answer to the public. It's their customers. In contrast, Nestle answers only to its shareholders.

BuzzFlash: You wrote an Op-Ed in The New York Times that advocated more water fountains, more drinking fountains. Why is that?

Elizabeth Royte: One of the main reasons people drink bottled water, especially in places that have good tap water, great tap water like New York or Chicago, is convenience. And we are driving the culture. People don't like to wait. They get thirsty. They like to go into a store and get cold water. And since we're drinking more water and less soda and less sweetened drinks, let's make it easier for people to refill their bottles. I advocate in the book drinking tap water, filtering it if you must, after you really find out what's going on with your water. Sometimes your tap water is bad. Get a filter if you need to, and use a bottle and bring your water with it. But we need more places to refill them, I think. More water fountains are the answer. I think it reconnects people with their watershed. It reminds them that water is part of the public trust.

BuzzFlash: Well, let me say this. BuzzFlash recently moved into a building that has actually two water fountains on our floor. And when I prepared for this interview, I thought about that. You know, I almost never see a water fountain in a building anymore in downtown Chicago. I think this was a very environmentally designed building, and I think it was factored into it.

Elizabeth Royte: I think that public water fountains should be part of the design - that the green building codes should include water fountains either inside or outside.

BuzzFlash: Is part of the problem that we've become so concerned as a culture about hygiene that people think: Don't drink out of the water fountains - you can get germs?

Elizabeth Royte: Some people, worry, yes, but water is chlorinated, and the chlorine kills it. They also have concerns about the pipe, and designing it so people cannot get their lips on it. I think the fear of germs is part of the reason people like bottled water. They like the private feel of water that's not shared in common when you take off the cap. I talk about it also in the impulse to avoid public transportation and instead driving long distances in private vehicles. People are moving to the suburbs, living in big houses, commuting in their private cars, listening to their private music on I-pods, carrying their individual cell phones. They don't use public phones. Bottled water is part of this move toward individualization.

BuzzFlash: The implication is that it also has economic justice implications. Obviously, if you're poor, you're not going to be spending your money on bottled water.

Elizabeth Royte: Right. And the implications are if we all turn our backs on public water supplies, if the leaders don't understand that we're interested in perfecting these supplies and improving them, they'll be very politically reluctant to spend money to improve them so everyone will have access to affordable good water. So you end up with this two-tiered system where only people who can afford to have good water, privately bottled, will have it.

BuzzFlash: This is a $10 billion a year industry.

Elizabeth Royte: Up to $15 billion in the U.S., and globally it's over $60 billion now.

BuzzFlash: Does it show any sign of abating? Lately I've seen this second or maybe it's the third generation - of high-energy water.

Elizabeth Royte: That market is growing - the enhanced water. I don't know if people are getting tired of plain water or they do want a little sweetness or flavor, or if they're thinking I might absorb some vitamins from it. I know that part of the market is growing. Sales of plain old bottled water also is continuing to grow in this country. I think Coke profits are down in the last quarter. It might have something to do with the economy. Bottled water is going to get more expensive as oil prices go up. And I think more people, as they're becoming educated and as oil prices are going up, are going to be asking themselves if they want to fill up the gas tank to get to work, or want to spend it on that bottle of Fiji water.

BuzzFlash: Does Fiji water really come from Fiji?

Elizabeth Royte: Indeed it does.

BuzzFlash: So, just so we can get that image of Fiji on the bottle and of paradise - all kinds of resources are put into taking that water from Fiji to a 7-11 in Duluth, Minnesota?

Elizabeth Royte: Um-hmm.

BuzzFlash: It seems it's a fulfillment of a fantasy and has nothing to do with our hydration.

Elizabeth Royte: Right. I guess the marketers put those flowers on the label. They want people to imagine they're having a mini-tropical vacation in a bottle. And it's an affordable luxury for a lot of people. Many people tell me the water does taste different. I don't want to promote it. I'm curious to see what it tastes like, but I can't bring myself to do it.

BuzzFlash: Someone might catch you on camera. Let's talk about the focus implied by the main title of your book, Bottlemania. Isn't that particular type of plastic that the water comes in a sort of potential environmental hazard?

Elizabeth Royte: Oh, the number-one plastic.

People have worried for a long time about ______ leaching from PVC plastic. And ________ makes it a little bit flexible. But poly______. But there are no _______ in PVC plastic, the number-one bottle. So that's a rumor __________. There are _______, however, in number-two bottles. And number two plastic is like cloudy or milky bottles used for one-gallon bottles of water, and ____________. So there are ________ in number two plastic. Another concern was the plastic fibers - I'm sorry - a chemical called _______, which gives stiffness to some plastics, especially polycarbonate plastics, which often have a number seven on the bottle. And polycarbonate bottles are like the ______. On the one hand, you have leaching plastic in bottled water. And then when people switch to their reuseable, which they're now doing, they're all worried about ____________ endocrine disruption and cancer in some lab animals. But now ________ is phasing out the use of ______ in their bottles and ________ makes a nice hard plastic reuseable that doesn't have plastic in it. [voices overlap; inaudible] The water bottles that people have delivered to their homes and offices also are number 7 plastic, and many of them may have distonal[?] in them.

BuzzFlash: So what do you recommend?

Elizabeth Royte: I think that you can get a nice reuseable, easy-to-wash plastic bottle if you can affirm from the manufacturer - or confirm - if you can get the manufacturer to confirm it doesn't have dixonal[?] A in it. I use a big bottle, which is aluminum lined with enamel. There's a steel bottle made by ___ canteen - they're made in China. Some people like those bottles. They have a slightly larger mouth so it is easier to get the bottle brush in there.

BuzzFlash: And there are other suppliers of aluminum refillable bottles. And what about the old thermos?

Elizabeth Royte: If the thermos is lined with glass, I have no qualms about that. But they're heavy, so not quite as convenient. People like convenience.

BuzzFlash: Elizabeth, thank you so much for this very important book.

Elizabeth Royte: Thank you.

 

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A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW

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