Saturday, June 14, 2008

Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It

Highlights from a book review by Lisa Margonelli in New York Times. Lisa Margonelli is an Irvine fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of “Oil on the Brain: Petroleum’s Long Strange Trip to Your Tank.”
  • Why did Americans spend nearly $11 billion on bottled water in 2006, when we could have guzzled tap water at up to about one ten-thousandth the cost? The facile answer is marketing, marketing and more marketing, but Elizabeth Royte goes much deeper into the drink in “Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It,” streaming trends cultural, economic, political and hydrological into an engaging investigation of an unexpectedly murky substance.
  • In 1987, Americans drank only 5.7 gallons of bottled water per person per year, but the cumulative impact of ad campaigns and the vision of Madonna fellating a bottle of Evian in “Truth or Dare” more than doubled consumption by 1997. In 2000 the chief executive of Quaker Oats bragged to analysts that “the biggest enemy is tap water.” By 2005, the enemy had become the consumer’s bladder; and in 2006, Pepsi, which owns Aquafina, spent $20 million suggesting that Americans “drink more water.” That year we drank 27.6 gallons each at a rate of about a billion bottles a week.
  • But marketing swings both ways. As quickly as bottled water became a symbol of healthy hyperindividualism — sort of an iPod for your kidneys — a backlash turned it into the devil’s drink. one expert tells Royte, “the total energy required for every bottle’s production, transport and disposal is equivalent, on average, to filling that bottle a quarter of the way with oil.” Mayors from San Francisco to New York suddenly became aware of the new symbolism of bottled water as a waste of taxpayer money, a diss of local tap water and a threat to the environment. Some canceled their city’s bottled water contracts.
  • By the time I finished “Bottlemania” I thought twice about drinking any water. Among the risks: arsenic, gasoline additives, 82 different pharmaceuticals, fertilizer runoff sufficient to raise nitrate levels so that Iowa communities issue “blue baby” alerts. And in 42 states, Royte notes, “people drink tap water that contains at least 10 different pollutants on the same day.” The privatization of pristine water is part of a larger story, a tragic failure to steward our shared destiny. And if you think buying water will protect you, Royte points out that it too is loosely regulated. And there is more — the dangers of pipes and of plastic bottles, the hazards of filters, and yes, that “toilet to tap” issue. But there is slim comfort: Royte says we don’t really need to drink eight glasses of water a day. Drink when you’re thirsty, an expert says. That’s refreshing.
The Indian Context
This book review caught my attention for various reasons. The protests that erupted in the State of Kerala over excessive water use leading to depletion of ground water resources in the local community is still fresh in the mind. The second issue that comes to mind is the study made by Delhi-based NGO, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), headed by Ms Sunita Narain, revealing that all soft drink brands sold by Coke and Pepsi comprised a cocktail of pesticide residues. This had forced some of the State Governments to restrict sales of cola
products. Further, Coca Cola was also in the news being accused of disposing hazardous sludge outside its bottling plant in Palakkad, Kerala.

In the Indian context, people use bottled water especially while travelling, more for health considerations as tap water is considered not safe enough to drink without purification/boiling etc. Thus, many people while travelling consume Coke/Pepsi feeling that its safe - but which subsequent tests proved not so safe. As regards the bottled water, it was interesting to learn recently from a conversation I had with a person who had visited a water bottling plant. He had been told that bacteria is eliminated at the plant stage while bottling, but it develops/grows after 4-5 hours. Thus, even bottled drinking water is not safe, this person was told! But, as we know our Indian conditions, we still feel bottled water is safe - may be, continuous advertisements have reinforced that thought in our minds.

"Drink when you’re thirsty, an expert says. That’s refreshing," concludes the book review. Very true. Only the question is which water - bottled water or tap water? May be if we are at home, tap water - duly boiled would be good for consumption and if we are travelling then we will have no alternative but to consume bottled water.