September 8, 2008

‘Bottlemania’ Questions Water’s ‘Green’ Impact

By Linda M. Castellitto

In perhaps the biggest marketing coup since DeBeers convinced consumers that diamonds are the must-have gemstone for lovebirds, beverage companies have transformed water from a free, simple thirst-quencher into a colossal moneymaker.

In fact, sales of bottled water have surpassed those of milk and beer, Elizabeth Royte writes in Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It. And although soft drinks are still No.1, water isn't far behind.

Gone are the days when mainly models and movie stars toted bottles of Evian in expensive handbags. Today, even ordinary consumers buy the stuff.

Bottled water has "shifted from a public good to an economic force," Royte writes.

Some facts and figures:

*From 1990 to 1997, U.S. sales rocketed to $4 billion from $115million.

*From 1997 to 2006, sales increased 170%, to $10.8 billion.

*Bottled water is a $60billion-a-year business worldwide.

*In 2006, per-capita consumption was 27.6 gallons, up from 5.7 gallons in 1987.

*Americans discard 30 billion to 40 billion water bottles a year.

The "green" movement has raised Americans' consciousness about carbon footprints and recycling. Water has become another green concern. Natural supplies of clean, fresh water could dry up if we don't start paying attention to where water comes from, what we do to it and why we drink it.

Royte, no stranger to environmentally focused reporting, also wrote Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash and The Tapir's Morning Bath: Mysteries of the Tropical Rain Forest and the Scientists Who Are Trying to Solve Them.

In Bottlemania, she explores how water is accessed, packaged and sold; compares tap water with bottled water; and muses on the commodification of a natural resource. She raises questions about bottled water's surging sales and its impact on society and the environment -- and explains what she's learned in a straightforward, conversational voice that makes even the densest statistics and scientific explanations accessible (well, almost).

Royte traveled to Fryeburg, Maine. An aquifer there is a source for Nestle-owned Poland Spring, which built a bottling plant in nearby Hollis. Fryeburg residents are at odds about whether they should welcome or shun the corporate interloper.

Royte writes about Coca-Cola (Dasani) and PepsiCo (Aquafina). Both draw, bottle and sell water in America and abroad and have triggered conflicts over water rights, taxes, traffic and pollution.

Royte participated in an informal taste test with bottled-water expert/author Michael Mascha. The two tested several brands, including NEWater, which is 100% reclaimed from a Singapore wastewater treatment plant, and Bling, a brand that sells for $40 in stores or $90 at nightclubs. Mascha preferred Bling.

And what of tap water? Royte learned that "unless cities invest more to repair and replace their water and sewer systems, the EPA warns, nearly half of them will by 2020" be in shoddy condition. The cost for repairs? An estimated $390 billion, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. To put that in perspective, the federal deficit is projected to hit $482 billion in the 2009 budget year.

It's a dangerous state of affairs, Royte explains, because degrading water systems will decrease consumers' trust in tap water and increase purchases of bottled water: "Opting out of public water in favor of private isn't going to help preserve -- or improve -- municipal water supplies, but preserve them we must: Too many people can afford to drink nothing but."

Royte concedes that bottled water has a place in emergency or certain health-related contexts, but wider public use comes with a high environmental and societal price. Consumers should be aware "that the images on the label may not reflect an ecological reality, that part of its sticker price may be landing in the pockets of lawyers and PR flaks, that profits probably aren't benefiting those who live near the source, and that the bottle and its transportation have a significant carbon footprint."

The message of Bottlemania is that Americans would do well to educate themselves about the products they consume and the packaging they discard, especially bottled water.

Linda M. Castellitto is a freelance writer based in Raleigh, N.C.

Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It

By Elizabeth Royte

Bloomsbury, $24.99, 256 pages (c) Copyright 2008 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc. <>