Tell me sweet little lies...

 

Bottled water has always been an elaborate PR scam-- both an invented necessity and a bizarre symbol of luxury. Nevertheless, I buy it sometimes, especially on long car trips. I don't know why, but I usually pick Fiji. Maybe it's the square shape and snazzy palm frond label. 

I have always known that I am being seduced by shameless greenwashing: "natural artesian water" so eco-friendly that "every drop is green." However, like most of us, I enjoy forgetting what I know, as I listen to the  gurgle of gasoline filling up my tank and eat a frozen Snickers bar.

Every bottled water company has a special spin: Evian has tried for years now to convince us that drinking its bottled water will make us thin and sophisticated, possibly even French. Dasani, by Coca Cola, goes for mystery with its shapely blue bottle and "mouthwatering" mineral formula.  

Something all the bottled water companies have in common these days, however, is aggressive greenwashing. It turns out Fiji is running one of the most surreal and manipulative campaigns.

 

"We are proud to offer a fine artesian water that is good for people and good for the environment," they say.  Nonsense. A recent study by the Pacific Institute, Energy Implications of Bottled Water, has forever ruined Fiji water for me. 

The study, published in the February 2009 peer-reviewed Environmental Research Letters, finds that bottled water takes up to 2,000 times more energy to produce than drinking water from the tap. The two biggest energy sucks are production of the bottles (it takes the energetic equivalent of 50 million barrels of oil per year to produce the bottles), and transportation of the bottles to their final destination. 

 "Artesian" does mean that Fiji water is from an authentic spring -- and the island where the spring is located is, indeed, Fiji. That means the heavy bottles have traveled over 5,000 miles by air or boat to get here.

The island of Fiji is historically vulnerable to catastrophic drought. In past decades Fijian farmers have starved because there wasn't enough water for irrigation, which calls into question the wisdom of shipping Fijian water overseas to be sold as a luxury item.

Fiji Water has promised to reduce emissions and packaging, use more renewable energy, and use carbon offsets for their remaining emissions, as well as protect their source's watershed, the Sovi Basin Rainforest. They have even set the goal of becoming carbon negative... someday.

None of those intentions makes Fiji better than companies who transport water a shorter distance. And even those companies don't come close to being as green as municipal tap water, which skips the carbon-heavy bottles altogether.

 In addition burning huge quantities of fossil fuel, it takes 3 liters of water to produce 1 liter of bottled water. To call this "good" for the environment, much less sustainable, or equitable, or sane... is pushing hypocrisy to its outer limits  (for a thoughtful discussion of the impact of the bottled water industry on communities in the U.S., see Christina Ammons' 2007 story, "Watershed Moment" about the controversy surrounding Nestle's bottling enterprise in McCloud, California.)

 Americans spent $11 billion on bottled water in 2006. In 2003, 1 cubic meter of California tap water cost 50 cents, compared to $995 dollars for a cubic meter of bottled water. Why do we pay at least 1,000 times more for bottled water than water from the tap? What drives the ever-increasing rate of consumption, estimated at 10 percent per year -- despite grassroots resistance from activists and some restaurants that refuse to serve it?

Many people have a hazy sense that bottled water is safer than tap water. Some concerns about deteriorating public water infrastructure, trace contaminants and pharmaceuticals that the EPA doesn't regulate are legitimate. However, there's no evidence to suggest that bottled water is safer.  Food and Water Watch point out that quality testing standards are far less stringent for bottled water than for municipal supplies. For example, whereas municipal water must be tested for fecal coliform bacteria 100 times per month, a little over 3 times a day, bottled water plants only have to check once a week. A study by the Natural Resources Defense Council found more than the allowed amount of bacteria in more than one fifth of 103 tested brands.  

We can't afford bottled water -- socially, environmentally, or economically. If we're going to spend billions of dollars on water, it should be on public infrastructure. Otherwise, we are settling for a system that is unsustainable, unjust, and unhealthy. Rather than "Let them eat cake," it will be, "Let us drink Perrier."