The United States of Bottled Water: Our Thirst for Liquid Fool’s Gold

‘Forty-five percent of bottled water in the United States originates as tap water,’ says Peter Gleick, author of ‘Bottled and Sold.’
The U.S. bottled water market was 8.75 billion gallons in 2010, according to the Beverage Marketing Corporation. (Photo: Dotjay/Creative Commons)
Sep 4, 2011· 4 MIN READ
Salvatore Cardoni holds a political science degree from the George Washington University. He's written about all things environment since 2007.

In September 2007, the University of Central Florida gave its pigskin fans what they had always wanted: a brand-new football stadium. The facility, Bright House Networks arena, had all the bells, whistles and bullhorns a modern gridiron aficionado could, would and should expect.

Except one, that is—public drinking fountains. The intentional omission was almost deadly.

But there’s no reason that people should assume that bottled water is any safer than tap water in the U.S.

The very first game at the stadium—a 35-32 loss to the Texas Longhorns—was played under triple-digit, hate-yourself-for-not-staying-home-and-watching-on-your-flastscreen heat.

Citing security issues, stadium officials banned BYO water, leaving scorched, parched fans with only one oasis option: bottled water sold at concession stands for three dollars. Demand far exceeded supply and concessionaires soon ran out of the liquid fool’s gold. Seventy-eight fans were either treated by campus medics or rushed to nearby hospitals for heat-related illnesses.

This anecdote, and others like it, are examined in engaging detail in scientist Peter Gleick’s, Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession With Bottled Water. The paperback hits bookstores today.

Along with Erin Brockovich, Gleick is one of the stars of Last Call at the Oasis, a thought-provoking new documentary in which citizens, activists and scientists prepare for the impending global water crisis. It premieres on September 9 at the Toronto International Film Festival.

I caught up with Gleick last week for a chat on America’s love affair with bottled water, which, as it turns out, isn’t all that different from the stuff that comes out of your tap.

TakePart: What compelled you to write this book?

Peter Gleick: The story of bottled water is a strange one. I’ve been working on water issues for a long time—from basic human needs for water to environmental consequences of human use of water to conflicts over water. In the last few years, it had become increasingly apparent that the phenomenon of bottled water was going to keep growing. So I started to look into the issue of bottled water: Why do we drink bottled water? What’s behind the marketing of bottled water? What are the strange stories that are available to look at bottled water? Ultimately, it became a book. There were just so many factors involved, so many interesting issues to address, that I decided that it was worth a book.

TP: What is the third age of water?

PG: The first age of water was when human civilization had barely begun and water was simply something we took from the natural environment when we needed it.

But as populations grew—as civilization expanded and as cities developed—we outgrew our local water resources, and so we started to develop the second age of water. This was when science and technology began to play a role in helping us understand what we were doing to our water resources and helping us understand how to access the water we needed in a much more concentrated, intense way. So we started to build dams and irrigation systems and water treatment plants and massive distribution systems that basically characterize water today.

But the second age of water is also ending. We’re moving into a time when the manipulations of the second age also are not enough. We have massive contamination, overdraft and unsustainable use of water. We have contamination of water resources, and we still have water-related diseases. I’ve argued that we need a new way of thinking about water. And that’s the third age.

The third age is ultimately going to have to be a sustainable water management system. We’re going to have to learn to live within our means. We’re going to have to learn that ecosystems are a critical component of our water cycle. That it’s not just humans alone—that it’s humans and the natural environment together. The third age, ultimately, is going to have to be a sustainable age.

Water went from being a free natural resource to one of the most successful commercial products of the last one hundred years, according to Bottled And Sold. (Photo: Island Press)

TP: In the book you ruminate on Will Rogers’ famous line: “Advertising is the art of convincing people to spend money they don’t have on something they don’t need.” Is this why people drink bottled water?

PG: I think people drink bottled water for four reasons. I think we’re afraid of our tap water. I think sometimes we don’t like the taste of our tap water and we think perhaps bottled water tastes better. I think it’s become increasingly convenient to find bottled water and increasingly difficult to find public drinking water fountains, and that has contributed to the growth of bottled water. And the fourth reason is we’re bombarded by very effective advertising and marketing that convinces us that this or that brand of bottled water is going to make us healthier or sexier or more popular. I think all four of those factors have played a role in the explosive growth of bottled water.

TP: Is the public drinking fountain going to be more like the dinosaur that goes extinct, or the California condor that comes back with a little bit of help?

PG: Both are possibilities. I think in the last two decades or so we’ve seen a disappearance of public drinking water fountains. They haven’t been maintained, new ones haven’t been built, and people have been convinced that they’re dirty and that we ought to not use them.

But I also believe that we have an opportunity to revive them. Public drinking fountains used to be a symbol of modernity. They used to be a symbol of a city that had a good water system. And I think they can be that symbol again. I think there is an effort underway to expand access to public drinking water, to repair and expand networks of public drinking water fountains and to convince people to use them again. We’re actually working on a project at The Pacific Institute right now to develop a smart phone app that helps people find the nearest public drinking water fountain.

TP: How safe is bottled water in the United States?

PG: In general, bottled water is a remarkably safe product. But I think, in general, tap water is also a remarkably safe product in the United States as well—and far cheaper. Often, bottled water comes from tap water. Forty-five percent or so of the bottled water we get in the United States originates as tap water.

TP: That’s unbelievable to me.

PG: Sometimes it’s reprocessed a little more. Sometimes they tweak it so that it tastes like what they want it to taste like. But there’s no reason that people should assume that bottled water is any safer than tap water in the US. There’s no reason to assume that the regulations that protect our bottled water are better than our tap water—because often they’re not.

I don’t think that people should be drinking bottled water in the United States because they’re afraid of their tap water or because they think bottled water is any better because I don’t think the evidence says it is.

TP: What is one thing that a person can do to effect positive change in this space that takes five minutes, or less than five dollars?

PG: That’s easy. Buy a cheap, refillable bottle.

TakePart's parent company, Participant Media, produced Last Call at the Oasis.