Peter H. Gleich sets the theme for his book “Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water” nicely at the very beginning
Think about where you are right now. How far away is the nearest faucet with safe water? Probably not very far. Yet every second of every day in the United States, a thousand plastic bottles are thrown away. Eighty-five million bottles a day. More than thirty billion bottles a year at a cost to consumers of tens of billions of dollars. And for every bottle consumed in the U.S., another four are consumed around the world
and at the end of his book:
“I’ve decided to write this book in part to gain a better understanding of what the explosive growth of the bottled water industry really means for us and for the future of drinking water.”
This is only about one bottle every three days for every US citizen. When you look at it that way it’s not too much, but still these numbers highlight how much recycling-material (“waste”) is produced by the many people living on this planet.
Europe vs. North America
As I currently live in Germany, I have to point out at the beginning, that the story of bottled water is slightly different here than in North America. Bottled water traditionally used to be “mineral water” and it existed for as long as I can remember. Traditionally it is being sold in heavy plastic crates with glass bottles for which you paid about 3 Euros extra as deposit. When I was a kid, I drank lots of water from faucets, but also lots of mineral water out of those bottles. Gleick mentions this difference between North America and Europe in his book. And I agree, it does exist, even though over the last few years I also do see a trend towards use of more bottled water and less tap water. Similar discussions have been going on on this blog before.
There is a list of the contents, at least the mineral content (ions), on every bottle of water sold in Germany, and there are some waters with high mineral content, and maybe those have some health benefit to them. At least, I agree with Gleick, it’s good for the consumer to know what’s inside the product that he buys, and if it’s “only” water. There does seem to be a slight movement recognizable, also in Europe, that goes away from bottled water and back to tap water. More and more people, also in Europe, bring their own bottle and fill it with tap water.
However, a common thing between the continents is the increasing force with which companies invade public spaces. Gleick gives a nice example of stadium of University of Central Florida (UCF Knights) where “a $54 million stadium had been built without a single drinking water fountain. And for ‘security’ reasons, no one could bring water into the stadium. The only water available for overheated fans was $3 bottled water from the concessionaires or water from the bathroom taps, and long before the end of the game, the concessionaires had run out of bottled water.”. I’ve been hearing stories that there are universities in Europe, where students and employees are no longer allowed to bring their own coffee powder and brew their own coffee, but they have to buy their coffee from the shops at the university.
“Bottled and Sold” gives a very structured view of the entire bottled water business. Gleick deals not only with the hydrogeology, geology, hydrology, sanitary engineering aspects, but also advertisement, business aspects, or religious aspects. As a comparison, “Bottlemania” is a detailed case study, where local people get problems with water extraction of a private company.
Inherently, there are so many stories in this book which cannot be retold here — how ancient cultures were proud to supply high quality drinking water for free to the public, how advertisement and through other means somehow society got scared of drinking tap water, how insanely huge and water consuming “state of the art” bottling plants are and how significant their impacts are on the local water systems where they are located at. You have to read the whole thing. And I do recommend to read the whole thing for everybody who works in any subject related to water, as well as for anybody who is concerned about water — and everybody should be concerned. I want to point out three examples
The first one is a piece of legislature, today it could be called “consumer protection legislature” that was passed in 1875 by the Massachusetts legislature — ‘an Act against selling unwholesome provisions’. How much weaker is current comparable legislature? Here is a quote of it:
“Whereas some evilly disposed persons, from motives of avarice and filthy lucre, have been induced to sell diseased, corrupted, contagious or unwholesome provisions, to the great nuisance of public health and peace: Be it therefore enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives… That if any person shall sell any such diseased, corrupted, contagious or unwholesome provisions, whether for meat or drink, knowing the same without making it known to the buyer… he shall be punished by fine, imprisonment, standing in the pillory, and binding to the good behaviour, or one or more of these punishments, to be inflicted according to the degree and aggravation of the offence.
One chapter’s topic is “If it’s called “Arctic Spring,” Why is it from Florida?”. This chapter sheds some light into the wild world of brand names, and current legislature on what kind of water must be called what names.
Gleick finishes his book with a “call to arms”, pointing out that
we are at a cross-road: either abandon our efforts to provide save public tap water for all in favor of privately produced and sold bottled water — or instead follow a soft path for water, a comprehensive approach to sustainable water management and use, requiring equitable access to water, proper application and use of economics, comprehensive protection of aquatic ecosystems, incentives for efficient water use, new sources of supply, smart use of innovative technology, improved water quality and delivery reliability, strong public participation in decision-making, and more.
update Monday; August 16, 2010: here’s a review at “Water Link International“