Our unhealthy attachment to spring water.

News and commentary about environmental issues.
April 21 2008 7:56 PM

Water, Water Everywhere and Not a Drop To Drink

America's unhealthy attachment to spring water.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

Just the other day, it seems, bottled water was a status symbol par excellence. Green glass Perrier bottles studded the Four Seasons like diamonds did the fingers of socialites. Demi Moore and Madonna toted liters of Evian with the aplomb of Jackie Kennedy carrying her Gucci hobo. Rumor had it that Michael Jackson bathed in the stuff. The secret to Raquel Welch's glossy locks? Shampooing with Evian. Madonna even simulated oral sex with an Evian bottle in her 1991 documentary Truth or Dare (NSFW). When it came to spring water, too much was never enough; women's magazines chirped month in and out about water's fabulous health benefits, the "glow" that came from downing a minimum of eight crystalline glasses a day.

But the times they are a-changing. Thanks to the faddish explosion of the green movement, bottled water has become the latest—and purest—symbol of crass conspicuous consumption. To many, Evian no longer denotes fresh-faced purity, but an oily blot on the green earth. Eco-conscious Web sites trumpet headlines like "Five Reasons Not To Drink Bottled Water." Last summer, Gavin Newsom—America's most stylin' mayor—banned the use of San Francisco city funds for bottled water, and this March, Seattle's mayor followed suit. Meanwhile, sales of reusable eco-friendly bottles like Sigg have surged, with the company's revenues in early 2007 skyrocketing 80 percent over the previous year's. While the rejection of bottled water may seem like the latest self-serving eco-fad, at its heart is a reckoning with an ugly truth. Our addiction to water purity is, ironically, making the world—and our water supplies—unhealthier than ever.

Of course, the backlash was probably inevitable. It wasn't that long ago, after all, that Americans were pretty happy with their tap water. Then, in the summer of 1977, Perrier launched a concerted ad campaign in the United States featuring Orson Welles, hoping to catapult its spring water from a niche product (about 2 million bottles sold a year to what Time called "discriminating, well-heeled 'Perrier freaks' ") to a fashion accessory with broad market appeal. The campaign popularized the vague health claims and the appeals to the "mystique" of bubbling-springs-untouched-by-man that would become the de rigueur icons of the mineral-water movement. (Gustave Leven, the company's then-president, said, "Americans will love Perrier because it is nice for your digestion" and dropped hints about its "nonfattening" heart benefits.) Between 1978 and 1979, sales in the United States rose from $20 million to $60 million. And in the '80s, fueled by the burgeoning health craze, mineral water's appeal to celebrities and Wall Street execs as a status-symbol-cum-health-necessity grew sharply. By 1988, Perrier was a juggernaut, selling some 300 million bottles a year; it took a benzene scare to shake its chokehold on the market. At that point, companies like Evian, having already spotted opportunity, were poised to step in and take a piece of the pie.

What no one could have anticipated was just how big that pie would become. As fast as bottled-water sales grew in the 1970s, it's nothing compared with what's happened over the last decade and a half. According to Elizabeth Royte, author of the informative, forthcoming Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It, U.S. bottled-water sales actually jumped from $115 million to $4 billion between 1990 and 1997. Global water sales today are estimated to be close to $100 billion. This second leap in growth is due in large part to the development of polyethylene terephthalate (PET). PET is a flexible, durable, light plastic that "revolutionized" the industry, according to the president of Nestlé Waters of North America. Cheaper than polyvinyl chloride bottles, it helped enable a transition from heavy glass packaging to portable plastic. As Charles Fishman aptly put it in Fast Company,the plastic bottle "did for water what the pop-top can had done for soda: It turned water into an anywhere, anytime beverage, at just the moment when we decided we wanted a beverage, everywhere, all the time." Today, estimates suggest that the bottled-water market continues to expand by an astonishing 7 percent a year.

And yet there's nothing benign about that Evian bottle, despite its soothing emanations of purity and good health.  In fact, water, more than any other commodity, epitomizes the health troubles created by our convenience-first portable economy. The very thing that allowed the water market to expand—plastics—may be making the world vastly less healthy for all of us. In the first place, contaminants from plastics like PET leach into the ground and the water around us. And  evidence is accumulating that the phthalates in flexible plastics such as PET can interfere with our endocrine system at high doses—disrupting the regulation of hormones and leading to imbalances that interfere with reproduction.

Even if plastic has no such effects on the human body, it's still turning the environment into a bigger mess. Each year, the United States disposes of some 30 billion empty bottled-water containers. Water bottles are filling up our landfills: Two million tons of plastic water bottles a year ultimately end up in them. (And that's not counting all the bottles that end up in rivers and oceans instead.) According to the Earth Policy Institute, it now takes more than 17 million barrels of oil to make enough PET to meet America's demand for bottled water—enough to fuel more than 1 million cars a year. What's more, shipping individualized water bottles across the country burns through still more oil and leads to a larger carbon footprint for all of us. Royte estimates that each water bottle we buy consumes one-quarter of its volume in oil in production and transportation costs.

What makes matters worse is that very few bottled-water drinkers actually recycle their Evian or Fiji, meaning that our idealization of remote mountain springs has led in practice to ever more mountainous piles of plastic crud around us. By several estimates, fewer than 15 percent of PET bottles are recycled. In fact, recycling rates of water bottles have actually declined since 1994, according to the Container Recycling Institute. One reason is that container-deposit laws, or "bottle bills," generally don't apply to water bottles (and container-deposit laws have a proven effect on recycling rates). Poland Spring is the best-selling spring water in the United States, but most states' bottle bills don't apply to water; Maine is the only one that offers a nickel refund for the popular half-liter version. Meanwhile, bottlers have a shortage of scrap PET to work with, according to CRI, meaning that most bottles are made with new materials.

No one could have anticipated the extraordinary cultural shift that our infatuation with bottled water represents. Today, even green-minded Americans have become significantly less inclined to drink tap water. And perhaps for good reason: Tap water in the United States isn't actually as safe as it could be. At least 92 percent of suppliers meet federal safety standards, to be sure, but the pipes in many old houses and buildings aren't necessarily up to snuff, as Royte underscores in Bottlemania. A five-month investigation by the Associated Press released in March found that there were pharmaceutical drugs and hormones in the water supplies of 24 major metropolitan areas, affecting 41 million Americans.

But the real reason, clearly, has to do with the confluence of status, health, and—perhaps most powerfully—convenience that bottled water has come to represent. The fundamental root of the bottled-water fad is the American love of single-serve packaging. In fact, by the 1990s the appetite for bottled water was so voracious that it almost didn't matter what was in the bottle: The allure of "pure" mineral water drawn from faraway places had been overtaken by the simple convenience of water in bottles and by dietitians' guidance of overweight Americans toward calorie-free replenishment; along the way, Coke and Pepsi realized that processing tap water might sell nearly as well as "pure" mineral water, and thus brands like Dasani and Aquafina were born. By 2006, 44 percent of bottled-water sales in the United States "came from municipal supplies," according to Royte (who also points out that such processed water is ultimately cleaner than most tap water, even if it comes from unglamorous Queens, N.Y.).

That's why so many ecologically minded people feel it's time for Americans to wake up and smell the toxins, as it were. As ethicist Peter Singer has put it, we have to ask ourselves questions about the value of purchasing bottled water—which involves negotiating the environmental cost of packaging and transporting it—versus the value of drinking tap water. Water, he stresses, is unlike Coke or Merlot or orange juice: We can get it from our own taps, at little (if any) cost to ourselves or the environment. After all, even among purist health freaks, there's no reason not to use coolers (which are less environmentally wasteful than half-liter bottles). Filters haven't caught on with the majority of Americans, perhaps because they're daunting to install, but they are the most sensible and safe alternative to rampant spring-water consumption. Finally, states should pass container laws encouraging Americans to recycle bottled water.

This rampant commodification of water, while in one sense a terrible thing, does make it impossible to ignore a future reality: The fact that we probably are going to end up paying for water. The starker truth hidden beneath the "bottled-water wars" is the reality that the United States is facing a potential water-shortage crisis. The Worldwatch Institute has called water scarcity "the most underappreciated global environmental challenge of our time." If we're really going to open our eyes to the murk lurking within our crystalline Evian, we might even want to put a sin tax on water bottles: Ironic as it may seem, perhaps American purists should be taxed for all the damage that their spring-water addiction wreaks on the world, much the same way many of us are taxed for our affection for alcohol and cigarettes. You might say it would push people to a healthier alternative and force most of us to focus on the real issue: making tap water safer for consumption. We could use revenue raised from such a tax to expand recycling efforts and ramp up efforts to keep pipes clean and municipal water supplies unpolluted. For now, though, the anti-bottled-water motto might be, the cleaner the water you drink, the dirtier the world you live in.

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