How do you measure safety? The bottled water disaster

The accessibility of clean drinking water changed the public health landscape. For centuries contaminated water left human populations vulnerable to waterborne diseases like dysentery, cholera, typhoid fever, botulism and other nasty parasites, protozoa and bacteria. And for centuries, the reasons behind the prevalence of these diseases eluded doctors and the scientific community.

It was 1854 before Dr. John Snow linked one of London’s many deadly cholera epidemics to water use from a contaminated well. It would be another 28 years before London began filtering its drinking water and another decade before chlorine was discovered as a method of destroying pathogens and producing safe drinking water in the 1890s.

Experiments with chlorination in New Jersey in 1908 paved the way towards safe drinking water in the United States and the 1912 Public Health Service Act that set standards for public water sanitation. Public water quality standards today are stringent. Just ask Fiji Water who, after badmouthing Cleveland, Ohio’s tap water in 2006 was found to be peddling a product that contained 6.31 micrograms per liter of arsenic, over 600 times that of Cleveland’s public water.

Not that there is any guarantee our clean water access will last. Our water infrastructure is failing, fresh water sources are rapidly depleting and attempts to save money have left places like Flint, Michigan in dire straits.

For now, though, on the whole, the tap water in the United States is some of the cleanest and best tasting in the world. And the best part about it? It costs virtually nothing out of pocket. While this will undoubtedly change over the coming decades as consumers shoulder the $24 billion needed for infrastructural improvements and are held increasingly accountable for water waste, compared to the cost of bottled water, tap water is a steal.

So why are U.S. consumers purchasing more than half a billion bottles of water per week?

It’s not need we have to thank for this financially and environmentally costly habit, it’s soda companies. Bottled water has been around for a century. Poland Spring, a spring water company in the Northeast (now owned by Nestle) has been selling water since the early 1900s. But it wasn’t until the 1990s and 2000s that Nestle, Coca Cola, PepsiCo and other major drink producers began to heavily market their own water brands in response to decreased sales of sugar sweetened beverages.

The full frontal assault on public water sources was intentional. Beverage executives even talked about their strategy in combat terms. “The biggest enemy is tap water,” claimed Robert S. Morrison, PepsiCo’s vice chairman, in 2000. Susan D. Wellington, president of the Quaker Oats Company’s beverage division seconded Morrison. “When we’re done,” she said, “tap water will be relegated to showers and washing dishes.”

Ironically, the ability to orchestrate a public drinking water genocide depends on the access beverage companies have to tap water. A third of our bottled water in the U.S., including PepsiCo’s Aquafina and Coca-Cola’s Dasani are sourced from public drinking water. PepsiCo, Coca-Cola and others have somehow managed to convince Americans that public water is only safe and delicious if it comes out of a bottle. How? How is anything sold in the United States? Manufactured demand through cross promotion! Selling the fantasy of a healthy life, plus cartoons for the kiddies (like Aquafina’s recent Ice Age promotion) and top designers for the fashion conscious (like Evian’s Haute Couture Limited Edition collaborations with Christian LaCroix in 2007 and Jean Paul Gaultier in 2008).

aquafina

It’s more than the ability of corporate beverage producers to so easily manipulate the public that should terrify us about bottle water. The environmental impact of bottled water production is devastating local and global ecologies. The plastic water bottles consumed by the United States weekly could circle the globe five times; the water bottles we consume in a year could fuel a million cars. And remember, this is a product we can access thousands of times more cheaply and easily with almost no waste out of the pipes already fitted in our homes, the same way Aquafina and Dasani already do in their factories.

With 80% of water bottles ending up incinerated, added to landfill or shipped to places like Madras, India to become part of massive bottle mountains, bottled water companies have begun to make an effort to decrease their environmental impact. Evian (Danone), a French company, is at the forefront of this commitment, vowing to produce 0 net carbon and reduce its plastic use by 25% by 2020. Dasani (Coca-Cola) has recently come out with a “twist” bottle made of 30% plant-based materials that can be crumpled to half its normal size before recycling. Aquafina has cut the size of their labels almost in half and decreased their packaging weight by 15% to cut down on plastic waste.

It may just be a drop in the environmental bucket but at least these behemoths are finally acknowledging their impact. This is a big step forward from Nestle’s declaration in 2008 that “bottled water is the most environmentally responsible consumer product in the world.”

There are a million things to fight for out there but if beverage companies have their way our dependence on bottled water will increase as our public water infrastructure continues to fall apart. Only companies like PespiCo and Coca-Cola’s will benefit from this arrangement. Well, companies and maybe federal and state governments who already do everything they can to delay infrastructural investments. The bottled water boom simply provides an additional reason not to fix our aging water systems. Why fix it if people would rather drink bottled water anyway? Access to clean drinking water is a basic human right. Let’s make sure it stays accessible for us all, not only for those who can afford it in bottled form.

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