Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Turning water into water

Commentary by Dick Dorworth


Dick Dorworth

First, full disclosure. I drink bottled water. Carbonated. Probably a third of the water I drink comes from a bottle. At a certain point in life I became enamored (i.e. addicted) to bubbles in the water I drink, completely senseless behavior in terms of physical well-being. Since I live in Ketchum, where the municipal water system (and the local geography, environment, snow pack and watershed) provides at little cost some of the best drinking water in western America, bottled water is an expensive indulgence that does nothing tap water can't do to hydrate the body, satisfy thirst and do water's part in maintaining excellent health.

Until a few years ago, very few people in America drank bottled water, but thanks to an enormous marketing campaign (and the public's propensity to embrace affectation and the delusion of a fountain of youth and to confuse self-worth with image and consumerism with quality of life) it is now the fastest growing segment of the entire beverage industry. In volume, bottled water sales are second among all beverages in the U.S., having doubled between 1993 and 2003. Per capita, Americans drink nearly 25 gallons of bottled water a year.

Bottled water is one of the most successful marketing scams in the scam-filled history of American big business. P.T. Barnum's estimate of the public's sucker birth rate was off by a factor of at least a thousand. Barnum lived in a simpler time.

After conducting a survey of the bottled water industry and testing 103 brands, in 1999 the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) published a major study entitled "Bottled Water: Pure Drink or Pure Hype?" The study found, among other things, that "one-third of the brands tested contained levels of contamination (including traces of arsenic and E. coli); that one-quarter of all bottled water is actually taken from the tap, filtered, and then sold back to the consumer; and that bottled water is generally subject to less-rigorous testing and lower purity standards than tap water."

Pepsi's Aquafina brand promotes itself with a tagline dripping with irony, cynicism and back-slapping marketing hype: "So pure we promise nothing."

Almost all bottled water brands in North America are owned by four corporations: Nestle, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola and Groupe Danone. The latter's products are distributed in America by Coca-Cola. The NRDC reports that the price gouging by these companies is a marketer's dream. For Coca-Cola and Pepsi, who draw their bottled water (and the water for their other beverages) from municipal taps (including Denver and Detroit), the markups are between 240 and 10,000 times from what they pay for the water and what they charge for it.

When one considers that municipal water systems are paid for in the first place by the very tax payers who later buy the water at 240 to 10,000 times what the bottler pays, it is, indeed, a marketer's dream. For Danone and Nestle it is even better, as the bottled water they sell comes from groundwater and streams for which they pay little or nothing. Gustave Levin, past chairman of Perrier, once remarked, "It struck me ... that all you had to do is take the water out of the ground and then sell it for more than the price of wine, milk or for that matter, oil."

It is not simply a matter of capitalism's motto, "what the market will bear," nor of the marketers in house slogan, "caveat emptor," as it would be if the living earth and the lives of its inhabitants were nothing more than line items in the ledgers of corporations so pure they promise nothing. In addition to the duplicity of selling to the public the public's own water at a staggering markup, these same companies produce dehydrating soft drinks and then promote bottled water as a solution to dehydration.

In addition to depleting aquifers in several places and taking over water sources that would more productively be used by and to benefit the public, the plastics used in bottled water have become a huge source of environmental contamination, from the process of manufacturing the plastics to their burial in the landfills of America. The plastics industry and the bottled water industry have opposed legislation promoting beverage container deposits which ensures high container recycling rates and reduces plastic container litter. Yet these same industries have completely misled the public by stamping a triangular logo on their products similar to the classic logo used for recycling, confusing consumers into believing these containers can be recycled. This misleading logo features three chasing arrows in a triangle surrounding a single digit, but it is hype and not to be confused with anything recyclable. It is estimated that more than 750,000,000 pounds of plastic bottles for water are sold each year, and most of those bottles wind up in landfills or are burned. They are toxic when burned and in landfills will eventually contribute to polluting the water tables from which the water came to fill them in the first place. It is a perverse and deadly reality of the snake oil corporate business of turning water into water.

Personally, I'm limiting my carbonated intake to a glass or two in the evenings until I can kick the habit.

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