89. Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It (Elizabeth Royte)

Sunday, April 26, 2009
Our resident Bad Tempered Zombie recently read a couple of books on the tarsands and our oil dependency. Her reviews are fabulous, make sure you check them out (and the books themselves) and she inspired me to do a bit more research into an environmental topic that I found fascinating (in a bizarre WTF sort of way). During my search for just the right book/topic, Amazon recommended Elizabeth Royte's Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It.

I've bought my fair share of bottled water - most folks in North America have had one of those single serving sizes at some point through out their lives. Many of us also have water coolers in our offices or workplaces but have you ever stopped to consider where that water comes from, how it ended up in a plastic container, or who's brilliant idea it was to SELL it to people? Water is a basic human necessity, it covers most of our planet and yet millions of us shell out a couple of bucks every once in while (for some, every day) to drink something that comes from the tap for free. Every time I bought a bottle or used our office's cooler, I would shake my head in wonder at what I was doing (although it didn't stop me). After reading Ms. Royte's well researched book, I won't be "buying" bottled water any more*.

Royte begins her book with a look at the small town of Fryeburg, Maine, a sleepy little town which is being overrun by large tanker trucks rolling through their quiet streets on their way to fill up with water from the same source as the town's municipal water supply. Nestle's Poland Spring label uses water from Fryeburg, bottles it and sells it at huge profit to unsuspecting consumers who, taken in by the image of timid deer drinking from a crystal clear spring, think they're drinking the healthiest option out there. Liquid the way nature intended. Little do we know. As she fills us in on how Fryeburg fell prey to Nestle's need for "pure sources", Royte explains how we got to this point in the first place. It's almost comical to think that bottled water was, at one point, somewhat of a status symbol. Or it would be if it wasn't so completely insane.

The outrageous success of bottled water, in a country where more than 89 percent of tap water meets or exceeds federal health and safety regulations, regularly wins in blind taste tests against name-brand waters, and costs 240 to 10,000 times less than bottled water, is an unparalleled social phenomenon, one of the greatest marketing coups of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries (p.40-41).

Bottlemania not only looks at the evolution of bottled water but examines the processes involved in getting it from the source to the vending machine or office cooler. The includes such awe-inspiring highlights such as it takes 17 million barrels of oil to make the plastic bottles for the American market alone each year and that only 60-70% of the water used by bottling plants end up on shelves; the rest ends up as waste. Some companies which sell us water convince us to buy their products under the auspices of either helping the environment or donating money to water conservation projects in third world countries. Routinely the money donated is a pittance compared to the profits these companies rake in from our desire for fast and convenient water on the go. While Royte does mention a few organizations which direct most if not all of their profits towards their causes, including Robert Kennedy's Water Keepers and Edmonton's own Earth Water which comes from Edmonton's municipal water supply, it doesn't negate the impact of getting it into the bottles and onto the shelves.

To be fair, Royte doesn't let tap water off so easily and takes a look at what goes into and what comes out of both bottled water and tap. While tap water and municipal treatment plants are hardly perfect, the overall process of making water drinkable is far less damaging to the environment. Not to mention the fact that municipal water supplies are subject to strict FDA quality standards while the bottling industry is self-regulated. When you consider all the things that can and do end up in your water (bacteria, waste, pollutants, sediment, chemicals), I know which I'd chose.

Given that the question of ownership in regards to water and other natural resources is such a hot topic these days, I highly recommend reading Bottlemania. Royte's book will be a wake-up call to many and is also a good starting point for those who'd like to learn more. The six page bibiliography she includes provides the reader plenty of options for further reading. Definately RECOMMENDED!

Elizabeth Royte is also the author of Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash which I'll be checking out later this summer.

* I freely admit to being a hypocrite as I still have a soda or juice now and again which have similar impacts on the environment but am working on curtailing that bad behaviour.

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