The selling of bottle water in the developed world has to be the biggest con job ever pulled on the public. Getting people to shell out an exorbitant amount of money for something that flows freely out of faucets has to be the most successful heist ever pulled by the advertising industry, persuading the gullible that a freely available commodity becomes a symbol of status if you pay for it.
Most people cannot tell the difference between bottled water and tap water and yet they shell out money for the former. If they wanted to throw their money away, then I would not care. But the whole bottling industry generates enormous waste, as Elizabeth Royte pointed out in her book Bottlemania.
In 2005, Tom Standage also made the case as to why bottled water is a menace except in areas where clean water is hard to obtain. And even there, bottled water is hardly the optimal solution to the problem.
In 2004, Americans, on average, drank 24 gallons of bottled water, making it second only to carbonated soft drinks in popularity. Furthermore, consumption of bottled water is growing more quickly than that of soft drinks and has more than doubled in the past decade. This year, Americans will spend around $9.8 billion on bottled water, according to the Beverage Marketing Corporation.
Ounce for ounce, it costs more than gasoline, even at today’s high gasoline prices; depending on the brand, it costs 250 to 10,000 times more than tap water. Globally, bottled water is now a $46 billion industry.
Clean water could be provided to everyone on earth for an outlay of $1.7 billion a year beyond current spending on water projects, according to the International Water Management Institute. Improving sanitation, which is just as important, would cost a further $9.3 billion per year. This is less than a quarter of global annual spending on bottled water.
I have no objections to people drinking bottled water in the developing world; it is often the only safe supply. But it would surely be better if they had access to safe tap water instead. The logical response, for those of us in the developed world, is to stop spending money on bottled water and to give the money to water charities.
It looks like the California drought may trigger the backlash against bottled water that I have long been hoping for.
Californians facing the prospect of endless drought, mandated cuts in water use and the browning of their summer lawns are mounting a revolt against the bottled water industry, following revelations that Nestlé and other big companies are taking advantage of poor government oversight to deplete mountain streams and watersheds at vast profit.
An online petition urging an immediate end to Nestle’s water bottling operations in the state has gathered more than 150,000 signatures, in the wake of an investigation by the San Bernardino Desert Sun that showed the company is taking water from some of California’s driest areas on permits that expired as long as 27 years ago.
Last month a protest at a Nestlé Waters North America bottling plant in Sacramento, the state capital, forced a one-day closure as protesters brandishing symbolic plastic torches and pitchforks blocked the entrances.
I have long despised Nestle as one of the world’s most villainous companies because of its heavy promotion of bottle–feeding of babies even in the poorest countries despite the clear benefits of breastfeeding. Mothers were encouraged to shift to the bottle because it was made to look glamorous and better (even using sales representatives dressed as nurses to add credibility to their claims) even though the lack of clean water meant that they were exposing their infants to avoidable diseases when they made the formula. Also the cost of formula resulted in mothers diluting the formula, risking the health of babies by reducing their nutrition intake. Not for nothing were formula manufacturers like Nestle labeled the ‘Baby Killers’.
Nestle is a transnational corporation with even less of a conscience than the low-levels that prevail among those bodies, so their behavior in California does not surprise me in the least.