Bottled and Sold

Our costly obsession with bottled water.

Every second of every day in the United States, a thousand people buy—and throw away—a plastic bottle of water. Major corporations like Nestlé, Coca-Cola, and PepsiCo have convinced us to pay a steep price for a commodity—and often the same water—we can get straight from the tap. Our collective attraction to bottled water comes with hidden costs too, many related to producing, transporting, and disposing of the plastic containers that hold that “Arctic” or “Glacier” water, which may very well come from New Jersey, Tennessee, or Texas.

In “Bottled & Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession With Bottled Water” (Island Press), Peter H. Gleick—President of the Pacific Institute and a recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship for his work on water issues—explores the choices we make about water, and how these choices affect our future. In the following Failure Interview, Gleick—who gets his water from the tap, by the way—explains why so many people have turned to bottled water, and relates the consequences of bottling and selling our most basic necessity.

Is bottled water better or safer than tap water?

I think the assumption people make is that bottled water is better, because we pay a lot more for it than we pay for tap water. But I think that assumption is false. Our tap water, in general, is perfectly safe. Bottled water, in general, is perfectly safe. But in the course of writing “Bottled and Sold,” it became clear to me that tap water is better monitored and better regulated than bottled water, and that we don’t really know what’s in our bottled water. It’s not monitored well and it’s not reported to the public as transparently as tap water quality is. I think we should have better monitoring of both bottled water and tap water, but I don’t think we should assume that bottled water is better.

How much more expensive is bottled water than tap water?

Of course, every bottle is priced a little differently, but a rule of thumb is that it is one- to two- thousand times more expensive. 

So why are so many people drinking it?

There are four reasons. One is that people are increasingly afraid of their tap water. Second, people sometimes don’t like the taste of their tap water. Third, water fountains are disappearing and it is increasingly convenient to find bottled water. Finally, we’ve been bombarded by very successful and aggressive advertising campaigns that convince us that bottled water will make us healthier, sexier, thinner, or more stylish.

If your tap water tastes lousy, what’s the best way to address the problem?

There are two issues. Some people think their tap water tastes bad, but it actually doesn’t.  Blind taste test after blind taste test suggests that we can’t actually tell the difference between bottled water and tap water. On the other hand, sometimes tap water does taste bad. The long term answer is that our water agencies ought to provide good-tasting tap water. We have the technology to do that, and we ought to put in place systems to fix the taste. When people don’t like the taste of their tap water, it’s typically because there are too many minerals—too many salts. It’s easy to take some of that stuff out of tap water. That’s what some of the home filters do. I don’t think the home filters are a great idea, but if your tap water tastes bad the short-term solution might be a filter.

Why don’t you like home filters?

They are expensive and typically designed to filter things out—like lead—that aren’t’ usually found in our tap water. Another problem is that you have to replace them, or over time they can actually produce worse quality water than what comes out of the tap.

What information can one glean from the label on a bottle of water?

There are serious problems with bottled water labeling. We don’t get the kind of information that consumers deserve. If it says “spring water” then it is required by federal law to come from a spring or a groundwater aquifer that feeds a spring. If it doesn’t say “spring water,” consumers ought to assume that what they are getting is reprocessed tap water.

But there are other problems with labeling. I give some great examples in the book: “Arctic Spring” water that comes from Florida; or “Yosemite” brand water that comes from Los Angeles; “Everest” water that comes from [Corpus Christi] Texas. And not only is there a lot of misleading information on bottled water labels, there is a lot of important information that ought to be on labels but isn’t:  the mineral content; where to get a water quality report; and where to complain about a problem. 

Who regulates bottled water in the United States?

If it’s sold across state lines, it’s regulated by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) as a food product. Our tap water is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency as a public good. But if water is bottled and sold entirely within a single state, the FDA doesn’t have regulatory authority, and it’s often not regulated by anybody. Many states have no bottled water regulations at all.

What are some of the hidden costs of the bottled water industry?

In addition to the purely economic costs of buying bottled water at very high prices, there are costs that society and the environment have to endure. One of those is the vast number of plastic bottles that are made at a huge energy cost, and then thrown away. On average Americans buy and throw away 30 billion plastic bottles a year. About thirty percent of those get recycled. The rest end up in our landfills, our rivers, or along the sides of our roads. That’s a big environmental and social cost to all of us.

There’s also a cost to taking water from our rivers and streams and groundwater aquifers and bottling it. In some places with big bottling plants, we’ve seen local groundwater levels drop and wells dry up and streams disappear and wetlands suffer.

What’s your greatest concern about the proliferation of bottled water?

I worry that as we become more and more dependent on bottled water that we won’t do what it takes to maintain a high quality tap water system. We have a great tap water system in this country. I argue that it ought to be better and can be better. A good tap water system is one of the things that made this country great.

Does the Safe Water Drinking Act need to be updated?

Absolutely. One of the things that protects the quality of our tap water system is the Safe Water Drinking Act (SWDA), a federal law passed many decades ago that regulates the quality of our tap water system. It needs to be updated.  There are things in our tap water that we could remove that we didn’t know were in our tap water or didn’t used to be in our tap water. The SWDA should require state-of-the-art technology for cleaning up our tap water and for fixing the taste. They are easy fixes, but they require Congress to bring the SWDA into the twenty-first century.

Do you have a favorite bottled water contamination story?

For the book I filed Freedom of Information Act requests to try and get information on incidences of contaminated bottled water. It turns out there have been lots of them, over a hundred examples that I was able to find of recalls of bottled water with contaminants such as mold, bacteria, and glass particles. Perhaps my favorite example is a bottler from Texas who reported crickets in their water, [albeit] many months after the water was sold.

Why isn’t water as big an issue in the public consciousness as climate change?

We take water for granted. We turn on our taps and there it is. But in developing countries that don’t have a good tap water system, water is a top priority for them. We’ve had good quality water for so many decades at an incredibly cheap price. We shouldn’t take tap water for granted and we should make sure our tap water system is as good as it can be and should be.

Could we improve our municipal water system for less than we spend on bottled water?

Absolutely. I argue quite strongly in the book that fixing our tap water system to make sure that it’s the best quality and produces good tasting water is far cheaper than relying on bottled water. The answer to our problems with our tap water system isn’t bottled water. A huge amount of money is spent on bottled water, which is ironic because people complain about the cost of their water bills. But we pay far less for water than we pay for electricity, cable TV, Internet or telephones. And it’s a far more important service.

Do you think we’ll ever see a backlash against bottled water?

I think we’re [already] seeing a backlash. As more and more people read about the problems with it and the true costs of bottled water they are beginning to move away from it. The public is becoming more aware of the issues, and that gives me hope for the future.