Everyone needs water, and in much of the developed world, they get it—virtually for free. Yet companies have made a big business out of selling water products to people with ready access to safe, clean tap water.
The effects of the bottled-water movement have been devastating, not just on wallets but also on the environment, says Peter Gleick, one of the world's foremost experts on sustainable water use and winner of a 2003 MacArthur “genius” grant. In his first book for the general public, Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water, Gleick explores the skillful marketing that made bottled water such a success, the myth of "clean" bottled water, and the surprising toll it has taken on our environment.
National Geographic News writer Eliza Barclay recently spoke with Gleick, who is co-founder and president of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security in Oakland, California.
What do you think is the most groundbreaking aspect of this book?
There were all sorts of things about how bottled water is monitored and tested and marketed that I found fascinating. It was really a lesson in how private companies are able to turn a public good into private product.
The bottom-line question for me was, how is it possible that we can be convinced to spend so much money on a commercial product when the same product is available usually a only few feet from where we might be sitting? The four reasons why I think people buy it are the fear of tap water, the convenience of bottled water, the disappearance of water fountains from public spaces, and aggressive marketing and advertising. The most difficult one is the growing concern consumers have about the quality of tap water.
What was the most bizarre thing you learned while researching this book?
The most bizarre stories have to do with strange claims made for some products—the ones with the molecules magically rearranged or that have enhanced oxygen—claims that are completely unjustifiable by science. This shows some degree of failure by the federal agencies that are supposed to protect us from false advertising.
And I don’t know if this is bizarre, but the entire life cycle of plastic bottles entails very serious environmental consequences that customers don’t really understand or know. There are huge energy costs in making plastic bottles, treating and filling them with water, and throwing them away.
If consumers knew [about these costs], consumption would go down. In some ways PET [polyethylene terephthalate, the plastic used to make many bottles] is pretty good plastic—it’s great for packaging food, it doesn’t leach nasty chemicals, and it’s completely recyclable. But there’s a big difference between recyclable and recycled. Probably 70 percent of plastic water bottles are never recycled, so that’s a very serious solid waste problem.
You mention in the book that sales of bottled water dipped for the first time in many years in 2008. Do you think they will continue to drop?
I don’t know what will happen with sales. It depends on a lot of things. It depends on how effective education is to move people away from bottled water. I believe there is more and more awareness of the problems and about how good and crucial the alternatives usually are. If we can continue to address successfully the reasons people buy bottled water, sales will continue to go down.
What do you think about the state of tap water in this country?
Consumers are increasingly worried about it. Some of that worry is legitimate, and some is unnecessary. Mostly in the U.S. we have very high-quality tap water, water that most of rest of world would love to have. But it’s also true that our tap water system is not as good as should be or could be. We should be investing more money installing state-of-the-art water purification systems everywhere and getting rid of old pipes and bad distribution systems that add bad things to clean water. It’s cheaper than relying on bottled water.
The older the city, the more likely it will have an old, leaky distribution system that might add contaminants. But some of the oldest cities in the country have wonderful systems. San Francisco delivers incredibly high-quality water. Having said that, every city should look for those pipes and parts of distribution system that are bad and replace them. This isn’t magic; we know how to solve these problems.
Do you think we take tap water for granted?
We tend to trust the government to do its job, or the private sector to do its job. And mostly our tap water is perfectly safe. Ironically for tap water, when there are problems, the public hears about it right away because there’s prompt public notification. This is a good thing, but it makes the public worry about tap water quality when doesn’t need to.
And as you say in the book, there’s no guarantee that bottled water is any better, right?
When we actually look carefully at bottled water quality, we often find problems. I found a hundred examples of bottled water recalls, many of which were never publicized. Those are just the ones found with very little monitoring. If we monitored bottled water as frequently as we monitor tap water, we’d see more and more problems.
One of your final chapters looks at the effort to produce “ethical” bottled water—water with a lower environmental impact and whose sale supports charity groups. I noticed that most of the “ethical” bottled water companies you list are in Europe. Is Europe ahead of the U.S. on bottled water?
Europe is way ahead in regulation of bottled water and requires clear, informative labels on their bottles. One of problems with the bottled water industry in the U.S. is that labels are incredibly uninformative. They don’t typically tell us where water comes from or how it’s treated or what’s in the water.
What about bottled water in developing countries? What if a government is a long way away from investing in water infrastructure?
There are many places in the world where you have to drink bottled water because safe and reliable tap water is not available. Mexico is good example. High bottled water use there is a symptom of a failure of the government to provide. It’s incredibly inequitable. The rich will buy bottled water and the poor will drink dirty tap water, and kids will get sick. But the answer is not bottled water for everyone—the long-term answer has got to be safe and affordable tap water. The poor are never going to be able to afford bottled water.