Archive for Saturday, August 18, 2007

Bottled water faces backlash

August 18, 2007


In 1783, George Washington visited the natural springs of Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Along with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, he took a keen interest in the supposed medicinal qualities of mineral water, a subject of much research at the time. The following year, a friend wrote to him to describe the difficulty of bottling the effervescent Saratoga water. "Several persons told us that they had corked it tight in bottles, and that the bottles broke," wrote Washington's friend. The birth of the United States thus coincided with the origins of bottled water.

The business of bottling water really got going in the 1790s in Switzerland, where doctors acclaimed the medicinal benefits of the artificially carbonated water sold by Nicholas Paul and Jacob Schweppe. The pair began exporting their bottled soda water in 1800, and such was its popularity in London that Benjamin Silliman, a visiting American chemistry professor, decided to set up his own soda-water venture in the United States. Others soon followed suit, and bottled water became a popular health drink.

But bottled water's mass appeal really began in the U.S. with the marketing of Perrier, imported from France, during the 1970s. The industry has not looked back since.

In recent years, though, sparkling water has been eclipsed by still water in popularity. Last year, sales of bottled water in the United States reached $11 billion. Globally, the figure might be as high as $100 billion annually.

Bottled water might look and taste pure enough, but the whole idea stinks. For a start, bottled water is indistinguishable from tap water. Put five bottled waters up against tap water in a blind tasting and see if you can tell the difference.

In many cases, bottled water is actually derived from tap water and filtered - which is why PepsiCo has just agreed to add the words "public water source" to the label of its Aquafina water. But water from glacial springs is not inherently superior. Worse, shipping it around causes unnecessary environmental damage. Bottled water is often refrigerated before sale, wasting even more energy. Then there are the millions of plastic bottles, many of which end up in landfills.

Surely bottled water is purer and safer? Actually, no. The regulations governing the quality of public water supplies are far stricter than those governing bottled-water plants. True, there are sometimes contamination problems with tap water, but the same is true of bottled water.

The industry responds that it is not selling water; it is selling "portable hydration." But filling a bottle from the tap works just as well.

Bottled water would appear to be the ultimate triumph of marketing. If you can get people to pay so much for something that is already available at very low cost in their own homes, doesn't that suggest that they will buy anything? Canned air, anyone?

But now a backlash against bottled water is gathering pace as people realize just how daft it is. (Actually it is worse than daft; it is decadent to shun perfectly good tap water, given that more than 1 billion people on the planet lack access to it.) Many fancy restaurants now proudly proclaim that they serve tap water. Restaurant patrons are increasingly prepared to ask unashamedly for tap water when offered expensive bottled stuff.

Campaigns such as "Think Outside the Bottle" attack bottled water as part of a corporate conspiracy to seize control of the world's water. Meanwhile, UNICEF's Tap Project, launched in March, uses the power of branding to promote tap water. New York tap water has, for example, been re-branded "NY Tap" and, on World Water Day, participating restaurants in the city suggest a donation for the tap water they usually provide for free, with the proceeds going to water projects in developing countries. I'll drink to that. Sparkling or still? Tap, please.

- Tom Standage is the author of "A History of the World in Six Glasses."


Ragingbear 10 years, 8 months ago

I find that it is more effective to get a clean pepsi or coke bottle and pour boiling hot water into it. That makes sure it's clean, and boils out any residual chlorine. I then stick it in the fridge. But for the most part, I am fine with standard tap water.

yankeelady 10 years, 8 months ago

I also like to use it on trips, beats pop. I tend to keep the bottle and reuse it while working outside or take in the car.

Kevin Sontag 10 years, 8 months ago

The statement this writer makes, "bottled water is indistinguishable from tap water", this is utter rubbish. The taste of tap water differs from place to place. It depends on numerous sources- the source of the water, the cleansing and filtering process, the pipes it goes through to get to your tap, whether you have a filter on your end or not, etc. My tap water is tolerable, but I can tell the difference between my kitchen tap and my bottled water. Hell, even my kitchen tap tastes different than my bathroom tap. So to make a broad statement like that just proves that he had his stance thought out before he even thought of writing the article, and he made no attempt at actually testing it or asking people.

That being said, I do agree that all the plastic bottles being wasted in the 24 packs you might buy at the grocery store is a shame. The best compromise, I think, buy a 2 or 5 gallon jug from Dillons, and refill it at their refilling station (or another store if they offer it).

LogicMan 10 years, 8 months ago

"all the plastic bottles being wasted"

At least here in Lawrence, they can be recycled via Wal-Mart (and others?). So "wasted" is too strong a word.

A deposit/refund program would be a pain, but it would assure most are recycled.

sourpuss 10 years, 8 months ago

Perhaps I am strange, but I don't like drinking water out of a bottle. I don't really like drinking soda out of a bottle or can either, but water from a bottle is intolerable. I like tap water, and I think bottled water tastes plasticky and flat. I don't even like bottling my own tap water since it gets that nasty taste pretty quickly. I'd rather drink from a drinking fountain if I am out, or just wait to drink until I get home. I don't need a drink every five minutes, I just need 8 oz about every 2 hours, and I am rarely utterly away from something to drink for two hours. I like coffee on the road anyway.

Bottled water is a scam, but it is like the lottery - a Stupid Tax. You've already paid for the water in your house, so anything else you spend on water is just... stupid.

Mkh 10 years, 8 months ago

I agree with the overall premise of the article. That being bottled water does waste energy and many tons of plastic end up in landfills. Of course, products like Aquafina are crap, and Dasani actually has sodium in it that makes you even more thirsty.

However, my question is, how does the water quality of good bottled water compare to the quality of Kansas drinking water???

I'll agree that certainly some regions have high quality tap water that matches that of most bottled. But Kansas ranks dead last, number 50, in water quality of lakes, rivers, and streams (thanks to the Green Revolution). Guess where we get our water from?

If someone is going to claim that filtered (purified) water from the natural springs of Sweden or remote Canada is less healthy than that which came from the Kansas River...I'd sure like to see the data on that.

Danielle Brunin 10 years, 8 months ago

I loved our well water growing up. It had such a wonderful taste. However, I think Lawrence tapwater is disgusting. We always joke that it is "crunchy." We've switched to bottled water because we have a young child that enjoys dumping water out of cups and so it is more practical to have bottled because he isn't able to get the cap off yet. Otherwise, we'll probably just buy gallons of Lindyspring drinking water when he gets older. We are very adamant about recycling so if we can't reuse the bottles in some way at home, they always get recycled.

camper 10 years, 8 months ago

I am one of the few on this post who prefer the tate of bottled water. This may be because the reverse osmosis process removes chlorine which may be the thing that improves taste. I've tried home filtration devices, but they don't really seem to improve the taste. Having said this, I think tap water is just fine, and the addition of chlorine has done so much to prevent disease.

classclown 10 years, 8 months ago

Are you aware that the RO process wastes 4 to 5 gallons of water for every gallon of "good" water it produces?

sourpuss 10 years, 8 months ago

Chlorine is active enough that if you just let your water air for a few minutes in a glass, a great deal of the chlorine will evaporate out of it. Most of the remaining taste is minerals, some of which can come from your own pipes. However, you do not have it worry about it being unhealthy as municipalities constantly test the water supply.

purplesage 10 years, 8 months ago

I have read warnings about the reuse of plastic containers. It is, as I understand it, OK in the short term but begins to break down in a relatively short period of time.

Years ago, somebody drew a cartoon of a board meeting room in France. The question of the day was, "Just how stupid do you think Americans are?" The answer was "Perrier". I keep a little for "carry out" and get water to drink 5 gallons at a time @ .25 a gallon from the filter thingy at Wal-Mart. Still a rip, but tastes much better than the stuff out of the tap where I live.

Beth Ennis 10 years, 8 months ago

I occasionally buy bottled water and then reuse the bottles for a long time, rinsing with hot water. I have no problem with tap water (even though a friend says the floride is very bad for us)--my biggest problem is no one makes a good water bottle to reuse that is as handy or convenient as the ones you buy with water in them. I like the sport tops and the smaller sized bottles. The ones I find in stores are just too large or don't have a convenient type of spout. I want it to fit in the cup holder of my car (most reusable bottles don't). If someone would just make a water bottle that is the same size as the 16-20 oz bottles you buy, I would very rarely ever buy bottled water again.

gccs14r 10 years, 8 months ago

Anyone who thinks Lawrence tap water is OK to drink must have no sense of smell. I've smelled worse tap water, but it was in places that had severe Hydrogen Sulfide contamination. I can't believe we have to pay what we do for what we get. It's stagnant pond water with a heavy chlorine finish. Bleah.

Steve Mechels 10 years, 8 months ago

I don't think that Larryvilles's tap water tastes that bad (although I do have a filter on my fridge). If you want truly bad tasting water, try the Topeka tap water. Lived there years ago and had to get a filtered pitcher. I work there now and still can't drink the water unless filtered.

goodbye_kitty 10 years, 8 months ago

My tap water tastes and smells like it is coming from a not particularly clean fish tank. For the first time ever I'm buying bottled water. I'm getting the gallon jugs from the-store-not-to-be-named-because-it'll-start-a-flame-war.

Richard Heckler 10 years, 8 months ago

If it's not RO or distilled the difference in filtered bottled water versus tap is none. Years ago we had our tap water and 5 gallon filtered bottle tested or examined. The results were disappointing as both waters tested identical. Sooooo we purchased a home distilling unit. Home filters can make a difference in taste.

sharron5rs 10 years, 8 months ago

You want "Good" tap water? ! Try Eudora water, if you can get it to run through your pipes. I will be moving back there soon, and the only thing I have against it,is the water. I will have to buy several filters for all my taps and ice maker, and if I could I would get one for my hotwater tank. You in Lawrence are lucky you CAN drink your tap water. Eudora has had problems with water for as long as I can remember.( I was raised there) So until I can get the filters I will be buying bottled water.

trinity 10 years, 8 months ago

you DON'T want to drink the tap water in richmond ks; it is chunky, smells funny, and is overall just kind of weird. i filter through a pur water filter to make it drinkable, brew iced tea with filtered water too. only buy a bottle of water once in a blue moon, to take along on the scooter or in the car; then save the bottle to refill out of the fountain or my pur for reuse.

cobaltblue 10 years, 8 months ago

There is a new invention out. Its called a canteen.

classclown 10 years, 8 months ago

sourpuss (Anonymous) says:

Chlorine is active enough that if you just let your water air for a few minutes in a glass, a great deal of the chlorine will evaporate out of it.


This is true. However, due to the fact that chlorine gases out of water so easily, pretty much every municipality in the country (including Lawrence) now uses chloromines which is a chemical bonding of chlorine and ammonia. This is done with the purpose of keeping the chlorine in the water longer.

There has been much debate on how long chloromines stay in the water with two general consensuses. Some say about a week and others think that it may never leave.

camper 10 years, 8 months ago

Classclown. I was not aware that reverse osmosis wastes 4 to 5 gallons of water for every good gallon. The water filtration units that I see don't seem have a waste tank...atleast none that I can see.

camper 10 years, 8 months ago

Reverse osmosis evidently makes water slightly acidic and removes valuable minerals though. One thing to keep in mind if deciding on what type of water to consume.

RedwoodCoast 10 years, 8 months ago

By the way, Marion, the Merc doesn't use reverse osmosis. They use steam distillation. No effluent water waste.

classclown 10 years, 8 months ago

camper (Anonymous) says:

Classclown. I was not aware that reverse osmosis wastes 4 to 5 gallons of water for every good gallon. The water filtration units that I see don't seem have a waste tank:atleast none that I can see


Two possible reasons for this.

1), The waste water is most likely washed down a drain rather than in a storage tank. 2). The filtration units you've seen could be DI or De Ionization units. They don't make the water as pure as RO units but there is no waste water associated with them. Unless of course they are combined with RO giving you an RO/DI filter.

camper 10 years, 8 months ago

Classclown. Thanks for the info. Seriously. The only reason I drink bottled water is because I belive it filters out contaminents. But I won't hesitate to drink tap water. I believe it is very safe. But lets not make RO a villian. The advantages of RO should not be diminished. Safe drinking water is needed all over the world. Whowever invented it should be awarded a Nobel Peace Priize.

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