The battle over bottled vs. tap water

After negative media reports on the environmental cost of bottled water, the industry responds with greener strategies.

Courtesy of Tom Balla/Nature works
Greener Bottles: In response to consumer concerns, manufacturers are creating bottles from biodegradable plastics, such as these, said to break down in landfills more easily.

For most of the past seven years, Kate Daniel was "a fiend for bottled water." Believing that bottled water was healthier and better tasting, the Tufts University junior would carry along a bottle wherever she went.

But after she failed to identify bottled water in a blindfolded taste test sponsored by a group called Think Outside the Bottle, Ms. Daniel's confidence in bottled water faltered. "I felt slightly duped," she says.

Even as bottled water companies continue to see increased sales, the recent raft of negative media coverage and activist campaigns against the industry has caused a product once seen as fundamentally green and healthy to lose some of its luster. Now, brand-name bottlers are scrambling to reposition their products by upping their green credentials to fend off further consumer backlash fermenting in churches, college campuses, and city halls across the country.

"All big business is under siege, and at this point it would be remiss to not react to environmental concerns," says Marian Salzman, an advertising executive with JWT Intelligence in New York.

By now, most Americans have heard reports that point to the amount of oil it takes to produce and transport bottled water, in addition to the masses of plastic bottles that are used once and not recycled. But most American consumers don't seem to be changing their habits.

Since 2002, the US market has seen an increase in bottled water production of more than 9 percent per year, according to the Beverage Marketing Corporation. After soft drinks, water has been the second-largest commercial beverage by volume since 2003. Production for 2007 is projected to be more than 9 billion gallons, with revenues clocking in just under $12 billion.

Despite buoyant profits, critics say it is only a matter of time before the tide turns against the bottle. Meanwhile, a chorus of state and local governments, social justice groups, and college students are turning up the heat on Big Water.

"There is no denying a growing degree of public consternation towards the [bottled water] industry," says Liz Gary, a Boston organizer for Think Outside The Bottle (TOTB), a campaign launched by Corporate Accountability International.

In response to their detractors, some water brands are attempting to revive their green images. For example, FIJI Water, the second-largest imported bottled water brand in the United States, recently announced plans to become carbon-negative by 2010 by using renewable energies and offsetting emissions through land-preservation projects.

"These companies are trying very hard, because being green in 2008 is not a political issue but a moral one," says Paco Underhill, the author of "Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping."

Campus cleanup

Although one of the most targeted demographics for bottled water, teenagers and young adults appear to be scrutinizing bottled-water's impact. "Since [2006], we have seen interest soar from about 10 colleges with TOTB campaigns to at least 36 very active ones now all over the country," says Deborah Lapidus, national campaigns director for Corporate Accountability International.

She estimates that there may be as many as 100 more such "boycott the bottle" groups at various stages of organization in the US and Canada, with new groups forming monthly. In addition, roughly 12,000 people, mostly college students, have signed a TOTB pledge to not buy bottled water.

It's enough to make producers of bottled water nervous.

After student groups at Boston College and Vermont's Middlebury College persuaded their schools to terminate lucrative contracts with bottled water companies, their student newspapers received letters from the American Beverage Association (ABA) and Nestlé Waters North America, reminding a generation of new customers that they have worked to improve recycling while keeping an "on-the-go society" hydrated.

But for Tufts students like Daniel, greener efforts may no longer be enough. When she learned that as much as 40 percent of bottled water comes from municipally managed water sources, and not the pristine springs she imagined, she decided to seal the cap once and for all.

"Clearly the ABA is threatened by this movement because they know how powerful college students are," says Lizzie DeWan, a junior at Tufts and cofounder of its TOTB campaign.

The International Bottled Water Asso­ciation shot back at critics in a press release, saying, "To single out this product as any more polluting or dangerous than the thousands of others packaged in plastic is to ignore the fact that today's society demands and relies upon packaged food and drinks."

Money drain for city hall

City and state governments are looking at the economics of banning bottled water. Citing environmental concerns and a misallocation of resources, Los Angeles; San Francisco; Ann Arbor, Mich.; and the state of Illinois have banned the use of public funds to purchase bottled water for city and state functions, while the mayors of Salt Lake City and Minneapolis have strongly urged constituents to opt for tap water instead. In June, the US Conference of Mayors adopted a resolution to bring attention to the negative impact of bottled water and promote local sources.

While critics say such moves will have nearly no effect on the volume of plastic waste, penny-pinching city councils see it as good economics. In each of the two fiscal years prior to the 2007 ordinance, the city government of San Francisco spent just under half a million dollars on bottled water for city employees and functions, despite touting one of the highest-rated tap water sources in the country.

"Considering that an equal amount of municipal water costs about 1/2000th the price of bottled water, it's a very foolish expenditure," says Neva Goodwin, co-director of the Global Development and Environment Institute, a Medford-based research institute.

Water as a social-justice cause

Beyond campuses and city halls, the issues surrounding bottled water are also being taken up by groups dedicated to social justice. Sister Mary Ann Coyle sees the growing corporate control of water worldwide as the privatization of a basic human right and an increasingly scarce resource.

In 2006, Sister Coyle, a board member of the National Coalition of American Nuns, introduced a successful resolution asking its 1,200 members to refrain from purchasing bottled water unless necessary. Other religious groups, such as the grass-roots Presbyterians for Restoring Creation, are taking similar campaigns to churches nationwide.

Victoria Kaplan, organizing director of the consumer rights group Food and Water Watch, says that she has observed a heightened awareness toward bottled water issues that was absent even a few years ago. "I overhear small children in the grocery store telling their mothers not to buy it," she says. In response, beverage corporations "are moving into high gear to successfully market to an educated consumer," says Ms. Kaplan.

For example, Poland Spring, the Maine-based bottled water brand owned by Nestlé, is attempting to appeal to "green conscious" consumers with its new Eco-Shape bottle, which they claim uses 30 percent less plastic than the average half-liter bottle.

"We were getting a lot of calls from people worried about recycling and what happens to the plastic," says Jim Ritts, a consumer affairs representative for Nestlé.

The efforts are appreciated but aren't good enough for some consumers. "The impact of shipping other communities' water around the world when we can simply turn on the tap is reason enough to not buy bottled," says Kaplan.

Recognized as one of the world's top trend spotters, Ms. Salzman predicts that the future of bottled water will be localized, with companies bottling water within a few dozen miles of major retail spots – allaying some carbon emissions concerns while still providing a sought-after product. "In the same way we have local wineries, we will begin seeing more bottled-water companies based on a low transport model," she says.

But bottled water's convenience and health benefits, perceived or real, will ensure growing sales for the industry. Regardless of some consumer backlash, "the bottled water industry is very safe and people will continue to invest in it as an affordable luxury," says Salzman.

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Bottled water impacts

These figures for 2006 highlight the problems many associate with the production of plastic bottles of water in the United States.

•More than 25.5 billion plastic water bottles are sold each year in the US.•

•More than 17 million barrels of oil (not including fuel for transportation) were used in plastic bottle production.

•Bottling water produced more than 2.5 million tons of carbon dioxide.

•It takes approximately 3 liters of water to produce 1 liter of bottled water.

•The total amount of energy used to produce, transport, refrigerate, and dispose of a plastic bottle of water may be as high as the equivalent of filling a 1 liter bottle one-quarter full of oil.

Source: Waste Management World, The Pacific Institute