Crazy for bottled water

Fryeburg, Maine, is a small rural town of about 3,000 people. This unassuming place is where Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It begins.

Nestlé, which owns the Poland Springs bottled-water company, has sued the town over its retraction of a permit to build a tanker station. Nestlé wants to continue (and expand) business as usual there, buying unlimited amounts of low-cost water from the town’s aquifer, while excluding other entities from pumping. Bottlemania uses the struggle of a small town grasping to take back control of its local water system from a corporate giant to illustrate the shift from water as a public resource to a private economic powerhouse. Globally, bottled water is now a $60 billion-a-year industry.

At the heart of this compelling, comprehensive piece of narrative journalism is author Elizabeth Royte’s question: Is the “privatization of something so essential to life immoral,” especially when the resource is scarce? Three percent of the world’s water is fresh and only one-third of that is accessible for human use.

Consumers’ obsession with bottled water began in the late 1970s, when the French company Perrier came to the United States and took off in the 1990s after PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic was introduced on the market, making portable water more feasible. Before long, what started as a social-status signifier for yuppies twisted into a perceived necessity as multimillion-dollar advertisement campaigns touted its health benefits and damaged the American public’s trust in tap water.

In 2007, public perception began to shift, although slightly, when Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute calculated the carbon footprint of bottled water. It wasn’t pretty. But for all the hoopla regarding the environmental impact of bottled water, the focus was on oil, not water.

Royte (a freelancer writer based in New York City whose previous work includes Garbage Land, a book documenting the path of trash) has changed that emphasis with Bottlemania. She spent more than a year investigating the multifaceted topic of drinking water in this country, taste-testing with a bottled-water connoisseur, taking trips to filtration plants and natural springs and journeying to Fryeburg to see for herself if relentless groundwater pumping degraded the local ecosystem as residents claimed.

Along the way, she learned the reality of bottled water, which may not be all that Nestlé, Pepsi and Coca-Cola claim. But if not bottled, then what? Our tap water comes from surface sources (lakes and rivers) and groundwater (melted ice packs from snow and rain). Although more than 89 percent meets or exceeds federal health and safety regulations, the water isn’t pristine.

Oil spills, industrial discharges, agricultural runoff, animal waste and sewage enter our water system, not to mention hormones, antibiotics, painkillers, nicotine and insecticide. Even the most effective household filters leave phosphorous, nitrates, nitrogen, fluoride, sulfur, arsenic, iron, bacteria and cysts untouched.

Regardless of the heavy health, environmental and ethical side effects of bottled water, perhaps the most troubling issue Royte explores is our society’s capitalistic approach to handling problems. She mentions the city of Baltimore, which spent 15 years attempting to remove lead from its public-school water fountains. In 2007, the city stopped trying and installed coolers of bottled water.

This approach inevitably creates less support for improving public water supplies. We should be protecting watersheds, cracking down on polluters, tightening water-quality standards and pouring more money into infrastructure maintenance.

But as Royte notes—and as bottled water so aptly demonstrates—we accept and adapt to problems instead of organizing politically to solve them. When it comes to ensuring safe drinking water for all over the long term, we’ve essentially given up.