Drink from something other than a plastic bottle, that is. These lines, taken from a poem called “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, describe our modern bottled water industry fairly well. While water distribution is varied across the planet, you can drink clean water for free from the tap in most places in the U.S. And yet, bottled water products, including brands like Perrier and Evian, litter the shelves of every convenience store. Water has become a commodity and a hugely lucrative industry.
Water, a substance all humans need to survive, has been unsurprisingly revered throughout history, often treated as sacred and pure. Monks used to send pilgrims from their holy wells with flasks of water, and spas centered around cleansing in water have been around for many centuries. The first commercially bottled water appeared as a necessity – in Britain in 1740, before clean public water was a thing. That trend lasted for about two centuries before scientists figured out how to effectively sanitize tap water in the early 1900s. In 1908, Jersey City was the first city in the U.S. to use water chlorination to treat all of its water. This revolutionary technology almost brought about the demise of the bottled water industry. But in 1977, a powerful commercial by Perrier, evoking images of purity and natural water sources, heralded the resurgence of bottled water.
Today, the bottled water industry is growing extremely quickly – it was valued at $157 billion in 2013 and will reach $280 billion by 2020 – and it is expected to surpass soda in sales starting in 2017. According to Wikipedia, there are 163 brands of bottled water worldwide. A booming industry has been built around something that is regarded as a public good in the U.S. While I recognize that there have been far too many cases of public water contamination and related health impacts, such as the Flint water crisis, which demand wide-spread use of bottled water, it seems that the bottled water industry in general markets for a wider consumer base than simply emergency services. Many brands evoke images of nature, cleanliness, and purity, and others try to repackage the concept of “water” altogether by adding ingredients and modifying the taste. It’s as if the bottled water industry is taking a substance that we all need, and manufacturing it into a drink with the taste and qualities that consumers want.
But despite all of the claims of bottled water companies, bottled water actually faces fewer health and safety regulations than tap water in most cases. This means that while your tap water has to pass several standards before you drink it, bottled water companies do not face as many restrictions in their formula and processing. And putting the empirical health and safety issue aside, a study conducted by Students for a Sustainable Stanford (the environmental organization I am a part of on campus) last year showed that 70% of survey participants preferred tap water over bottled water or didn’t have a preference. This surprised many of the participants – despite the price of bottled water and all of the claims of bottled water companies, their product often is not as healthy, safe, or (sometimes) as tasty as the free water that comes out of our taps.
Another troubling consequence of the bottled water boom has been the production of waste. Since the plastic bottles are made from petroleum product, this industry uses over 17 million barrels of oil to make bottles in the U.S. – this is enough oil to fuel 1.3 million cars for one year. Even though the bottles are recyclable, only 1 out of 5 bottles are actually recycled (mainly due to American recycling rates). That means that 80% of plastic water bottles end up in the landfill, where they will take between 400 and 1,000 years to decompose.
It’s true that bottled water was a great idea in the 1700s, when Britain had no cleaner alternative, and bottled water is still necessary for health reasons in many developing countries and disenfranchised communities like Flint. However, most Americans have access to clean, safe, healthy, and free drinking water in their taps that also doesn’t produce the kind of waste that the bottled water industry does. This industry’s boom is indicative of the power of marketing, but many of its claims are far from the truth. So next time you go to the grocery store, skip the package of bottled water and invest in a reusable water bottle instead. You can fill it up with tap water from home, and it will pay for itself in a matter of days!
Cover photo from: http://www.trueactivist.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/blue-and-green-plastic-bottles-resized-740×493.jpg