The battle over bottled water

In 2008 Americans consumed 8.6 billion gallons of bottled water. The global bottled water volume is expected to reach 174 billion liters in 2011, an increase of 51% over 2006. Once seen as a luxury, the consumption of bottled water became more commonplace as more and more bottlers entered the scene and bottled water came to be seen as a ” very easy and healthy way to stay hydrated and refreshed”. The bottled water industry manufactured demand by claiming their products to be healthier than tap water which was portrayed to be impure and unsafe. However the industry lost some of its luster when it was revealed that 40% of bottled water was nothing but filtered municipal tap water. With economic recession and increased awareness about pollution and climate change issues there is a growing backlash against bottled water

The bottled water industry is facing the most severe criticism in years with critics becoming increasingly vocal about the environmental impacts of bottled water. The Pacific institute, a sustainability think tank released a report which said that bottle production consumed 17 million barrels of oil equivalent in 2006. This did include the energy consumed in pumping and processing water form the sources in Fiji and Finland , transporting it to consumers in the United States and refrigeration. This brings the annual fossil fuel footprint of fossil fuel consumption in United States to 50 million barrels of oil equivalent . Overall it said, producing bottled water for Americans emitted more than 2.5 million tons of Carbon dioxide. Bottled water production is primarily wasteful with a 1 kg bottle of water consuming around 7 kgs of water to produce and transport. Another issue is the disposal of plastic bottles. Only around 20% of all bottles used end up being recycled. The remaining are buried in landfills where they remain for almost a thousand years without decomposing.

Several organizations have become actively involved in educating the public about the impact of the bottled water industry. On the occasion of World Water Day on 22nd March 2010, Corporate Accountability International released a video titled “The Story of Bottled Water” which showed how companies manufactured demand for bottled water as a part of its “Thinking outside the bottle campaign”. In June 2008, the US conference of Mayors voted to ban bottled water from city halls across the country except during emergencies. San Francisco canceled its city spending on bottled water in 2007, saving nearly $500,000 annually. David de Rothschild is traveling around the world in a boat made of plastic bottles lashed together to increase awareness of the waste produced by bottling water and to promote recycling. The campaigns seem to be having an impact with bottled water sales falling 3.3% in the United States in 2008 and continuing to fall in 2009.

The bottled water companies are however not giving up without a fight. In response to the ” The Story of Bottled Water” video, the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA) released a press statement to refute the allegations made in the video. According to the press statement “The video completely ignores an important aspect of bottled water. In times of emergency, bottled water is always there when you need it. Floods, wildfires, hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes, terrorist attacks, boil alerts and other events often compromise municipal water systems. IBWA members contribute millions of gallons of water each year to the affected victims. Lifesaving bottled water cannot be available in times of pressing need without a viable, functioning industry to produce it.” It also released a video called “Good Stewards” which focused on the sustainability initiatives taken by various bottlers.

The use of bottled water in countries without a reliable and efficient municipal water system is justified. However recent reports show that over 90% of bottled water consumption is in developed countries which have an efficient municipal system in place. With more than 1 billion people around the globe still lacking access to a safe and reliable source of water, the $100 billion the developed world spends on bottled water every year could certainly be put to better use creating and maintaining safe public water infrastructure everywhere.

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1 Comment

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One response to “The battle over bottled water

  1. bhgully

    Awesome. I actually interned for Corporate Accountability International for their “Think Outside the Bottle Campaign” here in Austin some years ago. The amount of ridiculousness I was made aware of within the practice of bottling water was absolutely laughable.

    Although the IBWA has a point that their services CAN be used in the case of emergencies, I think these are two wholly different needs and services which your last points put into great perspective. Something that might should reach the Hollywood heroes who insist their pets only drink bottled water.

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