"Bottlemania" author Elizabeth Royte explains how one of life's necessities became an extravagance, denounced by environmentalists and nuns alike.

Published June 7, 2008 11:21AM (EDT)

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Sparkling or still? Spring or tap? Imported or domestic? Flavored or plain? There's nothing simple about a drink of water, now that the bottled stuff outsells both milk and beer in the United States. In just a couple of decades, we've become a nation awash in bottled water -- with tens of billions of plastic empties to prove it -- transforming the drinking fountain on a city street into a dated curiosity akin to the public telephone booth.

How one of life's basic necessities became a heavily marketed beverage in a plastic bottle is the subject of Elizabeth Royte's new book "Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It." Royte, an environmental journalist based in Brooklyn, N.Y., shares the many, sometimes bizarre, unintended consequences of cracking open that plastic seal.

Twenty years ago, "bottled" largely meant luxury imported from a remote spring (think Perrier); it was a sign of sophistication. Now, Coke and Pepsi sell the two most popular bottled waters in the country, Dasani and Aquafina, by simply filtering and bottling tap water. Between 1997 and 2006, sales in the United States of this newfangled beverage -- water! -- leapt 170 percent. Not that the upscale stuff has simply evaporated either; today, bottled water is the No. 1 item by units sold at Whole Foods. The average American now drinks almost 28 gallons of bottled water per year, while as recently as 1987 we drank fewer than six.

Yet the staggering popularity of bottled water has inspired a backlash. Royte traces the raucous fight over water rights in one community, Fryeburg, Maine, where spring water is tapped and transformed into Nestle's Poland Spring, whose green label is familiar to many a parched Northeasterner. While wading into the environmental problems with bottled water, Royte also learns that old-fashioned tap water isn't just suffering from a bottled water industry smear campaign -- antibiotics with your water, anyone?

Salon spoke with Royte by phone from her Brooklyn home office, where she drinks her tap water, filtered, in a glass. (Listen to the interview with Royte here.)

How did bottled water get so popular?

What really happened was a kind of unglamorous technological invention -- the introduction of PET plastic, which is polyethylene terephthalate. It's the stuff with the number "1" on the bottom, and it's what most bottled water comes in now. Before, bottlers could put their product into polyvinyl chloride plastic, but it was heavier and more expensive, and it looked a little dull. PET was really clear, lightweight and cheap, which made it very easy to put a lot of water into bottles.

After the advent of PET plastic, Coke and Pepsi got into the business in the '90s. Pepsi had Aquafina and Coke had Dasani. Since they already had these great distribution systems set up, it was easy for them to push their water onto supermarket shelves and into gas station coolers and everywhere. They started spending tens of millions of dollars on advertising that appealed to our interest in celebrities, models, beauty, fashion and wellness.

Why do you think that water in single-serving sizes became so popular?

Marketers hammered home this idea that we need to stay hydrated, and we need to drink eight 8-ounce glasses of water a day. If it was so important to drink all that, then portability became important.

It turns out there is no scientific basis for that eight by eight rule.

Where did that idea come from?

It got its start when the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Research Council put out a report sometime in the '40s that said adults should drink about a milliliter of water for each calorie of food, which meant that we should drink about 64 to 80 ounces a day.

But the next sentence in the report was ignored. It says, "Most of this quantity is contained in prepared foods." When you think about pasta or rice, you know that it absorbs an enormous amount of water. And we get water in coffee and in beer and in soda, and all the other things that we drink. But it was easy to ignore that part of it, if you were selling water.

Is that why you see people walking down the street, toting water everywhere that they go?

I think there are some psychological reasons, too -- water as a security blanket. People like to be holding something in their hand. Some people just feel better having their own portable hydration system with them.

We're also primed for convenience. We've become very spoiled as a culture, unwilling to accept being uncomfortable for a short while until we get to a sink or a faucet.

Is there an element of germ phobia as well? Fear of using water fountains?

Oh, yes. An entire generation has grown up thinking that fountains equal filth, and the bottled water people are happy to exploit that. Some of the ads for water and even for water filters play on this, hyping this idea of public fountains being not quite pure.

Bottled water has become so popular that in the last year, it's experienced a backlash. It's now a symbol of ecological sin. Why?

In the beginning of 2007, Alice Waters declared that she would no longer sell bottled water. She took it off her menu. Then, many mayors across the country decided to stop spending taxpayer money on bottled water in city buildings. That gave the movement a bit of a push.

The carbon footprint of the water bottle has really caught people's imaginations -- the amount of oil it takes to make all these plastic water bottles, and the amount of oil and energy it takes to transport the bottles to market, and to keep them cold, and then to haul them away again to landfills, since only 14 percent of them go back into recycling systems.

Why are so few of these bottles recycled?

Mostly people drink water when they're out and about. We spend a lot more time commuting these days, going to school or going to work, or even for recreation, so we're traveling around a lot more, and we're traveling in places that don't have a blue bin around for the water bottle to go in.

Also, another big problem is that only two of the 11 states that have bottle bills take water bottles in those systems. If the bottle bills included the so-called New Age drinks, which are bottled waters and teas and sports drinks, that is another way we would get a whole lot more bottles back into recycling.

When those plastic bottles are recycled, are they made back into new plastic water bottles?

No. No. 1 bottles and No. 2 bottles, which are the most widely collected plastics in this country, have pretty high value. They're made into things like fleece jackets, carpeting, strapping for pallets and fillings for sleeping bags. But a third of the plastics collected in this country are shipped off to China where they're made into other things, including textiles.

So is there any recycled content in most of the plastic water bottles that we buy?

No. There isn't.

You started out your research mistrustful of bottled water. But along the way, didn't you find out some startling facts about tap water as well?

I did. I was really taken aback. I did go into it thinking it was quite simple: bottled water, bad; tap water, good. Then I learned more and more about various water systems in this country, and some of the problems that we have with contaminants.

Eighty-nine percent of community water systems in this country meet or exceed federal guidelines. That means most people in this country have great tap water. But that still leaves about 29 million people who are served water that misses the mark on either health or reporting standards. That's a lot of people.

In the Midwest, in farming areas, I learned about high levels of atrazine. I learned about contaminants that aren't regulated, like perchlorate, in the water of the Colorado River or gasoline additives that are leaking into water supplies.

All tap water isn't great. But I don't think that people should leap to the conclusion that their water is bad, and there is nothing they can do about it.

What do you think we should know about our own tap water?

Most people don't know where their water comes from. Know what's in your watershed. What is upstream from you? What sort of industry or agriculture? What could be in the water?

Then, know about the condition of the pipes in your house, because your water could be fine, but your pipes could be ancient, and they could be leeching lead or copper. There are some people who maybe shouldn't drink tap water, even if it meets federal requirements, if they're immuno-compromised, or if you're an infant, but that's something to talk to a doctor about.

If there is concern, test your water -- then you'll really know. Send it off to a certified lab. If there is something that concerns you after you do your tests, then you can get the right kind of filter to deal with whatever your situation is.

Do you think that distrust of tap water has turned people to bottled water? Or displeasure with how the water coming out of their tap tastes?

I think it's both things. I think some people honestly don't like the taste of their water. It's so variable. Some people in L.A. love their water. Some people hate it. Same with Chicago, same in New York. I think that a lot depends on what you grew up with.

But I think there is mistrust of tap water when we hear that there has been a main break, and there is a boil-water order from a utility. That's when a lot of people lose faith. And we're having water-main breaks all the time. There is something like 300,000 of them a year. Every time that happens a utility might lose hundreds or thousands of customers, who just throw up their hands. They don't want to boil water, and so they hear it as a "buy water" order, and there goes another tap-water drinker.

Some activists have charged that the water that Coke and Pepsi sells is just tap. Yet you say that's not strictly true. Can you explain?

Coke and Pepsi run the water through a gazillion levels of filters and reverse osmosis and UV light to clean it up. So it's really quite different from what your local utility is doing to the water. And the water, after they're done cleaning it up, isn't running through pipes that could be 50 or 100 years old. It's going into sanitized bottles.

I don't really want to defend the bottled water industry, but I want to be honest, and say that this water -- both the No. 1 and No. 2 selling brands of bottled water in this country -- is not just tap water.

What do you think about "ethical water," as you call it, in which you buy a bottle of water and a portion of the price is donated to a water charity?

I think it's kind of insidious, because it perpetuates the idea that it's better to drink water in a bottle. Starbucks, which sells their Ethos Water, has a perfectly good spigot behind their counter, and they should be willing to give you tap water if you ask for it.

Some local communities object to their spring water being bottled and sold elsewhere. But what makes extracting water from a spring one place and selling it somewhere else any different from extracting oil or wood for timber?

What gets people so upset is that water is necessary for life. We can live without timber and we can live without oil, but water is something that everyone has to have access to, and it has to be affordable for everyone. And once we go down this path of letting these corporations control it, there's no telling where it will go.

You found that it's not just environmentalists who are denouncing bottled water now; there are nuns doing so, too. Why?

They see water as something spiritual, as well as necessary for life, and they just object to it being turned into a crude commodity, something that someone can control, put in a bottle, sell, and that people can't afford.

Nuns, and other people of faith, feel a sense of responsibility for the poor and, increasingly, for the earth. Bottled water, if it indeed hurts tap water by taking away public support to improve and protect it, will disproportionately hurt those who can't afford to buy their water privately.

Bottled water is expensive, no matter how you buy it. And bottled water undeniably takes a toll on the earth. Yes, other products consume even more fuel, but those products aren't redundant to what comes out of the tap.

In your research, what were some of the most decadent bottled waters that you encountered?

There are lots of egregious examples. One of them is Bling water. It's $90 a bottle in clubs or $50 off the shelf. The bottles are covered with Swarovski crystals.

Fiji Water is from Fiji, and it has to cross 5,000 miles of ocean, and then go onto trucks, but since there has been so much negative publicity about that, Fiji has not only gone carbon neutral, but has announced the goal to be carbon negative. They're buying offsets, not only for the energy that they use, but beyond that. But the ships are still coming across the ocean, and the trucks are going around the country.

What is your take on the recent concerns about traces of pharmaceuticals showing up in tap water?

The scientists I've talked to say that it is worrisome but not alarming.

Wastewater treatment plants weren't designed to get this stuff out. So the government has been lagging on regulating it. They want to find out exactly what it's doing to us first. We need to establish drug take-back programs so that people don't put unused drugs down toilets. Nursing homes and hospitals and consumers should be able to bring back unused drugs.

The scientists I talked to say continue to drink tap water, because going to bottled water is worse for the environment and worse for your wallet. But go ahead and put a filter on your tap.

What do you think of Brita filters?

A pour-through filter is not going to take out any drugs. I use a countertop pitcher to get the chlorine taste out of my water, and it does a great job, and I'm happy with it, but I know it's not removing any drugs.

I think the best thing to remove drugs, if you find out there are a lot of pharmaceuticals in your water, is a reverse osmosis unit, and that's something that you need to install underneath your sink.

After all your research, what did you come away thinking people should do? How should they drink their water?

I think people should know where their water comes from and what's in it. And if they can't find out through public sources, then go ahead and have their water tested. If there is anything questionable, filter your water. If you have to go to bottled water, buy it in large quantities from a local source.

What if you still crave bottled water, because you love the bubbly kind?

I bought a seltzer maker from a company called ISI. You fill the metal bottle with tap water and then screw in a capsule of compressed CO2. Presto -- bubbly water. And the chargers are recyclable. There's Soda Club, which sells a countertop appliance that injects CO2 from a larger capsule. You can add flavorings or not.

There are the seltzer delivery folks in many cities, like Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York, who bring beautiful glass bottles of seltzer to your home, take back the empties, clean and refill them. It's zero waste for you, though there are, of course, emissions associated with truck delivery. It's an attractive option if you live in an area where there's already a delivery route.

Do you think that there should be a sin tax on bottled water?

It's hard to make a case for singling out bottled water, especially when there's no tax on drinking unhealthy beverages. I don't want to turn people away from drinking water. I just want people to know what the environmental and social toll of everything is and then make a smart decision. I hope that their tap water is great, and they'll stick with that, and get a nice reusable bottle.

How do you drink your tap water?

When I'm home -- I work at home -- I'm just drinking from a nice glass. But when I go out, I always bring a metal bottle with me.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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