Bottled water is a big business. Since the 1970s the market for bottled water has boomed around the world. Even soft-drink companies like Pepsi and Coca-Cola have dipped their hands into this successful product. According to Beverage Marketing Corp, New York City, Americans now consume more bottled water than milk, coffee, beer, or any other drink (Fishman) Consumers’ thirst for the beverage is fueled by many factors, one of the largest reasons being an increased interest in a healthy lifestyle.
As a result, the bottled water market increased by an average of 9% annually between 1999 and 2004 (Spinner, 2006) The global rate of consumption more than quadrupled between 1990 and 2005 (Li, 2007) People in the United States buy more than half a billion bottles of water a week; that is enough to circle the earth more than 5 times (Leonard). How can we explain this trend and what are the consequences for producers, consumers, and the environment? Bottled water consumption reflects a certain way of life. In many cases, bottled water is an alternative to tap water.
Consumers think it tastes better than tap water and they perceive it as being safer and of better quality. Bottled water is perceived as pure and harmless, although it is not necessarily the case. Consumers care for their health and their well-being and bottled water happens to be a quick, easy, and healthy alternative to other bottled beverages. The history of bottled water comes back to how the economy works. If companies want to keep growing they have to keep selling more and more stuff. In the 1970s giant soft drink companies got worried when they saw their growth projections starting to level off (Leonard).
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This was most likely because one person can only drink so much soda and sooner or later people were going to realized that soda is not healthy and they will convert back to drinking tap water. So at the end of the 1970s companies found their next big thing in a French product, Perrier. This was water sold in glass bottles and became the newest fad. It wasn’t until 1989 when they started manufacturing bottled water in plastic containers (Tapped, 2009). But how do you get people to keep spending two-thousand times more on a product that they can get out of their kitchen sink?
Companies needed to find an effective way to keep people interested in their product, so they start using manufactured demand, or advertising. They started scaring people away from drinking tap water, telling them it was no good. Susan Wellington, president of the Quaker Oats Company’s United States beverage division said, “When we’re done, tap water will be relegated to showers and washing dishes” (Gleick, 2010) Their next technique was to hide the reality of bottled water behind pure fantasy. They market it as being convenient and personal, which caters to our desires as a human.
Producers know that we love having something that is all ours and in close reach whenever we want it. They seduced us with images of mountains, streams, and pristine nature, but in reality one-third of bottled water in the United States comes from the tap. Pepsi and Coca-Cola are just two of many brands that are merely tap water. There is much debate on whether bottled water is better or worse than tap water. Obviously there are places around the world, and even the United States that do not have access to clean drinking water, so yes, in these places bottled water is the better choice.
But in the places where most bottled water is purchased, tap water is equally comparable, if not better, than bottled water. In 2006 Fiji built an ad campaign around not drinking city tap water. They chose the city of Cleveland, Ohio and printed full page ads in magazines that read “The label says Fiji because it’s not bottled in Cleveland”(Gleick, 2010) Obviously the city of Cleveland was not pleased and conducted a blind test comparing Fiji water to their city’s tap water. The test showed that a glass of Fiji water is lower quality and loses the taste test against Cleveland’s tap water.
Five percent of the bottled water purchased in Cleveland fell within the required fluoride range recommended by the state, compared with 100% of the tap water samples (Duncan, 2010) Also, a bottle of Fiji costs thousands of times more than the same about of tap water. Tap water being chosen blindly over bottled water seems to be the common trend (Wilk, 2006) Bottled water is actually less regulated than tap water. City municipals must perform multiple tests a day on the city’s water source, whereas bottled water industries are not bound under these same laws.
Clearly taste is not the central motivation behind the continuing increase in the bottled water trade (Li, 2007) In March 1999, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) released a report called "Bottled Water, Pure Drink or Pure Hype? " NRDC's report points out that as much as 40% of all bottled water comes from a city water system, just like tap water. The report also focuses on the fact that 60% to 70% of all bottled water sold in the United States is exempt from the FDA's bottled water standards, because the federal standards do not apply to water bottled and sold within the same state.
Unless the water is transported across state lines, there are no federal regulations that govern its quality. According to the NRDC, "Bottled water companies have used this loophole to avoid complying with basic health standards, such as those that apply to municipally treated tap water. " Also, all carbonated or sparkling waters are completely exempt from FDA guidelines that set specific contamination limits. According to the NRDC study, "Even when bottled waters are covered by the FDA's specific bottled water standards, those rules are weaker in many ways than EPA rules that apply to big-city tap water. For instance, if we compare EPA regulations for tap water to the FDA's bottled water rules (these examples are quotes from the NRDC report):
- City tap water can have no confirmed E. coli or fecal coliform bacteria. FDA bottled water rules include no such prohibition (a certain amount of any type of coliform bacteria is allowed in bottled water).
- City tap water, from surface water, must be filtered and disinfected. In contrast, there are no federal filtration or disinfection requirements for bottled water. Most cities using surface water have had to test for Cryptosporidium or Giardia, two common water pathogens that can cause diarrhea and other intestinal problems, yet bottled water companies do not have to do this.
- City tap water must meet standards for certain important toxic or cancer-causing chemicals, such as phthalate (a chemical that can leach from plastic, including plastic bottles); some in the industry persuaded the FDA to exempt bottled water from the regulations regarding these chemicals. City water systems must issue annual "right to know" reports, telling consumers what is in their water. Bottlers successfully killed a "right to know" requirement for bottled water
- The Natural Resources Defense Council report concluded: "Therefore, while much tap water is indeed risky, having compared available data, we conclude that there is no assurance that bottled water is any safer than tap water. " Often, enforcement and monitoring of water quality is uneven and irregular for both tap water and bottled water.
While tap water contamination incidents must be reported promptly to the public, the same is not true for bottled water. While contamination of bottled water does occur, many instances have never received public notice until recently (Gleick, 2010). Aside from the excessive spending of consumers on bottled water, there are also many health effects inadvertently caused by the bottled water industry, one of these problems being tooth decay. Since the 1950s, the United States has been involved in a public health program called ‘community water fluoridation’(1800 Dentist).
Many communities throughout the nation added fluoride to their water supply, and the result was a significant decrease in the number of childhood cavities (Xiang, 2010) Bottling companies use processes such as reverse osmosis or distillation to remove impurities from the water, which also removes the fluoride (Lalumandier,2009). Fluoride, or lack thereof, in your water may not seem like much of a reason to worry about whether or not you should drink tap water versus bottled water, but this is not the only risk for consumers.
According to a 1999 NRDC study in which approximately 22% of brands were tested, at least one sample of bottled drinking water contained chemical contaminants at levels above state health limits. Some of the contaminants found in the study could pose health risks, such as cancer, if consumed over a long period of time (NRDC) Polyethylene terephthalate (PET, or PETE) is a chemical found in the plastic used to make water bottles. A 2009 study by reasearchers form Goethe University in Germany suggest that PET bottles may contain hormone-disrupting chemicals that are detrimental to human health.
Some compounds in PET may seep out from these bottles and can possibly cause cancer. This typically occurs when the water is exposed to either cold or hot temperatures (Ferrier, 2001) Another chemical found in the plastic used to make water bottles is bisphenol-a (BPA). This has multiple health effects, including cancer and reproduction problems in women of child bearing age, as well as in babies (Ferrier, 2001, and Tapped). Producers and consumers are not the only components affected by the bottled water industry. Probably the most effected element is our environment.
From diminishing fresh water sources, to wildlife, to pollution, our environment is suffering immensely from production and disposal of bottled water. In a recent full page ad, Nestle said, “Bottled water is the most environmentally responsible consumer product in the world. ” (Nestle Waters). How can this be true when these industries are trashing the environment all along the products life cycle. This is not environmentally responsible. The problems start with extraction and production where oil is used to make water bottles. PET is derived from crude oil.
One kilogram of PET requires two kilograms of oil and produces three kilograms of CO2. Making bottles to meet consumer demands for bottled water requires more than 1. 5 million barrels of oil a year (Arnold, 2006 and Ferrier, 2001). That is enough oil to fuel 100,000 cars each year. With all that energy used to make the bottle, even more energy is used to ship it around the planet and once it reaches us we drink it in about two minutes. That brings us to the problem at the other end of the life cycle. What happens to all the bottles when we are done with them?
Eighty percent of empty bottles end up in landfills where they will sit for thousands of years before decomposing. Many end up in incinerators where they are burned releasing toxic pollution into the atmosphere. The rest is recycled. But what happens to the recycled bottles? In a perfect world each bottle would be recycled and remade into another water bottle. Instead the plastic goes through a downcycling process, which turns the material into lower grade plastics which is used to produce tons of other products, wasting much of the scrap and discarding it in another country’s backyard and/or into the ocean (Tapped, 2009).
There is a garbage patch twice the size of Texas in the North Pacific Ocean. The garbage patch occupies a relatively stationary region of the North Pacific. The rotational pattern of the current draws in waste material from across the North Pacific, including costal waters off North America and Japan. As material is captured in the currents it remains trapped inside this region of ocean. One hundred million marine mammals and turtles in the North Pacific are killed every year by plastic in the ocean. 70-100% of North Pacific sea birds are affected by eating plastic. Plastic is killing the ocean and it is poisoning the fish we eat.
Because the fish we eat have likely ingested contaminated plastic, it is virtually impossible for nature to produce organic fish in the ocean. Pepsi’s vice chairman publicly said, “The biggest enemy is tap water. ” They want us to think it is dirty and that bottled water is the best alternative. In many places public water is polluted. Thanks to polluting industries, one of the major contributors being the bottled water industry. Drinking bottled water has become a trivial habit in many people’s everyday lives. Bad tap water taste or quality, fitness goals, and other numerous reasons lead consumer to buy bottled water.
Bottled water may even be necessary, for instance in case of temporary tap water contamination. This flourishing market is profitable for many companies and provides a great number of jobs to people around the world. Bottled water quality is generally good, although it can suffer from the same contamination hazards as tap water and also contains hazardous compounds in the bottle itself. Some solutions to make sure bottled water quality is as good as it claims could include things like, companies releasing their quality tests on a day-to-day basis and make them available to the community.
It should also be required by all companies to include information about where the water came from, or how it was filtered, on the label. The International Bottled Water Association (IBWA) is beginning to “go green”. Nestle, for instance, will use 30% lighter plastic bottles and 30% smaller labels, as well as eco-shaped bottles. Their bottles will be 100% recyclable, and when building production plants they will make sure the building is green-building certified.
Another step they are taking is looking into hybrid vehicles for distribution of their product (Nestle Waters, 2011). This seems like Nestle is taking the right steps to improve production and use resources in a manner that will help improve, or at least maintain, our environment, but I cannot help but wonder if this is one of their marketing tools. Sure, they are producing in a more environmentally friendly way, but is this one of their ways of “tricking” us into buying their product and steering us away from their non-green competitors?
When buying their product we are still contributing to this market. Bottled water is not all bad. It has many positive uses. Bottled water is an absolute critical lifesaver in many natural disasters. Bottled water has a substantial shelf life. This is especially valuable for emergency preparation, but also for many other purposes. Also, bottled water is a nearly ideal consumer product: it is healthy, non-addictive, hypoallergenic, caffeine-free, calorie free, and contains no artificial colors, flavors, trans fats, etc. Fager, 2009) Some things we could do to reduce the environmental impact of bottled water are to re-use bottles of water rather than recycling them to be re-manufactured, or buy a reusable, BPA free, water bottle. A more aggressive approach would be to lobby with city and state officials for more drinking fountains around your city, or towards the boycott of bottled water in your public schools and work places. These are just a few steps to start protecting our wallets, our health, and our planet.
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