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Monday, 28 July 2008 04:01

Elizabeth Royte on Bottled Water -- What Does It Really Cost and Should We Pay the Price?

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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.

-- Elizabeth Royte, Author of Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It

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Elizabeth Royte has written before on environmental topics. For The Tapir's Morning Bath she joined rainforest scientists at their research outposts, and in Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash she followed the path of the mountains of trash generated daily by Americans. Now she tackles bottled water. Who needs it? Why do we buy it? What happens to the bottles? What about tap water? She shares her insights with BuzzFlash here. She just may change the way you choose to drink.
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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 bottled water would make us thinner, or have shinier hair, or do our 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 have 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 cold, fresh water from headwater streams from fish habitat.

Those are some of the charges made by bottling opponents, but it's difficult to definitively link water extraction at one point with harm to the surrounding environment.

The other aspect to the bottles is that most people don't recycle them. Fewer 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 buried or burned, they're often littered. It's very difficult to walk around a city without seeing empty bottles lying in the street, on train tracks, or in waterways. They're also making their way out to sea, where they break up into tiny pieces and, in the Pacific, end up in the infamous garbage patch, which is now twice the size of Texas.

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 deliver water to tens of thousands of people at the same time. There was a Swiss study done recently that compared the impact of bottled water to the impact of tap, and they found tap has about one half of one percent of the climate-warming impact of the most benign bottled water, and less than a thousandth of the impact of the most energy-intensive bottled water.

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. A year ago, neither aquafina's nor Dasani's labels were clear about their source, though you could be excused for thinking Aquafina came from mountains springs -- the label has a mountain-like image. But under pressure from activists, Pepsi changed its label and now states its public source. Coke, so far, hasn't agreed to change its 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 claims that some bottled water is just tap. If Coke and Pepsi are doing what they claim to, they're running that water through microfilters, then reverse osmosis, then exposing it to ultraviolet light for disinfection. Then the water goes into new bottles, not out through pipes that are 30, 50 or a hundred years old.

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

Elizabeth Royte: Well, you'll be healthier than if you were drinking soda or another sweetened drink, but healthier than drinking tap? In most places in this country, no. And there is a chance it could be less healthy because bottled water is far less frequently inspected than tap water. Your tap water in Chicago is tested tens of thousands of times a year, and you can learn the results of those tests by reading your "right to know" report. The safe drinking water act says your water company must provide this information. And if you don't have the report they mailed, you can look it up online.

Bottled water is regulated by the FDA, which 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 some of the water for the Poland Spring brand. Can you describe some of the issues that were involved in that dispute?

Elizabeth Royte: Poland Spring is a regional brand, established in Maine in 1845. But Nestle bought the company in the 1990s, and as the bottled water market has grown, the company has had to find new sources of water, to meet market demand. So they're going from town to town and buying up water rights. In Maine, the law says, basically, that if you own the property, you can pump as much groundwater as you want. So Nestle went to the town of Fryeburg and started buying water from a privately owned water company, which also supplies water to the town. The townspeople had no say in this matter because the water company owned the land and wells. It was a private deal.

But Nestle was 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 the deal and found they had no control over what was going on in this watershed. They passed moratoriums on new pumping operations. Others tried to pass an ordinance that enshrined the status quo. And then Nestle drilled a well in an adjacent town. It wanted to pipe that water underground to Fryeburg, and then load the water into tanker trucks and deliver it to the bottling plant.

The people who lived in this part of Fryeburg said no -- we don't want these trucks in our neighborhood, this is a rural area, zoned for low-impact businesses. Fryeburg's planning board originally permitted the loading station, but that decision was overturned on appeal. Nestle didn't like that decision and brought the matter to Maine superior court, which sent the question of "low impact use" back to the town for review. This time the planning board said no. Nestle then went to the town's board of appeals, and again lost. So back to court they went -- and that's where the matter stands now, with Nestle suing the town and a group of neighbors who've been fighting the loading station since it was proposed.

People in town are worried about losing their water. I wrote about one gentleman in particular whose well has gone dry a few times -- he claims it's from estle overpumping. He also claims that pollutants in the pond are now more concentrated because there's less fresh water entering it, and that higher phosphorous levels are spurring the growth of weeds on the bottom of the pond.

Other townspeople object to the truck traffic, and still others say that Nestle is paying very little for the water and is making a killing on it. They believe the township should reap 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. In the local paper, the letters to the editor have reached fever pitch. Neighbors aren't speaking to neighbors, life savings are disappearing as people pay lawyers and hydro-geologists. So this water issue has been extremely divisive.

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

Elizabeth Royte: Fifty in and fifty out from the spring, so a hundred trucks that are on the road. Plus another hundred trips at the proposed loading station.

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, nationwide. Whenever a water main breaks, there's the risk of contamination of water. And as more and more pollutants wash into surface and groundwater from development, from agriculture and industry, we're going to need more money to protect watersheds and improve water treatment.

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, even in places that have good tap water, great tap water like New York or Chicago, is convenience. People don't like to wait to quench their thirst. They like to go into a store and grab a bottle. I think it's great we're drinking more water and fewer sweetened drinks. But let's make it easier for people to get that good tap water, to refill their bottles.

In the book I talk about learning exactly what's in your tap water, through private testing if you must, and then getting a good filter -- an on-tap or reverse osmosis unit -- if there are contaminants of concern. Get a reusable bottle, fill it at home and remember to bring it with you.

But we need more public places to refill our bottles. 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 LEED standards -- 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: Yes, some people worry, but you have to remember that public water supplies are chlorinated, and chlorine kills bacteria. Maybe it would help to have fountain designs that prevent lips from touching spigots. I think the fear of germs is part of the reason people like bottled water. They like private, portable, factory-sealed water the way they like private transportation, cell phones instead of pay phones, and i-Pods. Bottled water is part of this move away from the commons and toward hyper-individualization.

BuzzFlash: There are also 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 that if we all turn our backs on public water supplies, if our political leaders don't understand that we're interested in protecting these supplies and improving their delivery, they'll be reluctant to spend money on them. If you're not drinking tap water, you're not going to support rate increases and bond issues that could help improve it. You end up with this two-tiered system where only those who can afford to have good water, privately bottled, will have it. Those who can't will be stuck with degraded municipal supplies.

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: The market seems to be splintering, with a lot of growth in the so-called enhanced waters. I don't know if people are getting tired of plain water, or think they want a little flavor or nutrients for the money they're spending. Sales of plain bottled water continue to grow, though the rate of growth has slowed over the last year. Coke profits were down in the last quarter. It likely has something to do with the economy. Bottled water, like everything, is going to get more expensive as oil prices go up. People will start asking themselves if they're going to fill up their gas tank so they can get to work, or are they going to buy another case 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: That's the triumph of marketing. A flowery label, a few palm fronds, and you imagine you're having a mini-tropical vacation. It's an affordable luxury for a lot of people. Many people tell me the water does taste different. I'm curious to see what it tastes like, but I can't bring myself to pull the trigger.

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: You're talking about PET plastic, marked with a number one on the bottom. People have worried for a long time about phthalates, which gives the plastic some flexibility, leaching from PET. Phthalates are linked with endocrine disruption, but they're not in this type of plastic. They are, however, in the milky plastics used for one-gallon and two-and-a-half-gallon bottles, marked with a number 2. And they have been shown to leach into water over time.

Another concern was bisphenol a, or BPA, which gives stiffness to polycarbonate plastic -- used in the five-gallon water jugs and in some refillable sport bottles, like Nalgenes. Bisphenol has also been linked with endocrine disruption and cancer in lab animals. Nalgene is phasing out its use of BPA, and there are other polycarbonate bottles that don't contain it.

BuzzFlash: So what do you recommend?

Elizabeth Royte: There are many easy-to-wash, nonleaching plastic bottles out there. If you have questions about your brand containing BPA, call the manufacturer and ask. I still use a Nalgene at times, but mostly I use a Sigg, which is aluminum lined with nontoxic enamel. There's a steel bottle made by Klean Kanteen. They have a slightly larger mouth so it is easier to get a bottle brush in there for cleaning.

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

Elizabeth Royte: I think they're lined with glass, which is perfectly safe. But they're heavy, and they can break, so not quite as convenient.

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

Elizabeth Royte: Thank you.

Interview conducted by Mark Karlin.

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Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It by Elizabeth Royte, available from BuzzFlash.

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