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Bottle of water delivers wrong message

by Hiroaki Sato

NEW YORK — “You really have to wonder at the utter stupidity and the irresponsibility sometimes of American consumers,” Salt Lake City Mayor Ross “Rocky” Anderson said. “These false needs are provided, and too often we just fall in line with what Madison Avenue comes up with to market these unnecessary products.”

Anderson’s point about “the wasteful and reckless consumerism in this country” itself may not be too original, but not many prominent officeholders come right out and condemn it in such forceful terms. What makes Anderson stand apart is that he is a refreshingly liberal politician, both in words and deeds. He has pursued high goals in minority rights and environmental protection and succeeded in them. What may be a little surprising is the product he chose for the condemnation: bottled water.

The rise in popularity of bottled water in the United States in the past three decades has been nothing less than amazing. Before the mid-1970s it was something you might order in a high-end restaurant. But, no, come to think of it, in such places it wasn’t called bottled water but by the exact brand names, such as Perrier.

Bottled water, in fact, was more or less alien to urban life. It was something you stocked in the basement shelter in case of a hurricane disaster and other emergencies. Now that I’ve mentioned it, I even remember bottled water as one of the items that lined the neat shelves of atomic bomb shelters shown in 1950s newsreels.

Today it has become such a ubiquitous part of daily life in America that Americans now consume more bottled water than milk and coffee, both traditional fixtures of American meals. How has this come about? Madison Avenue and American gullibility, as Mayor Anderson pointed out.

As Charles Fishman tells us in “Message in a Bottle,” in the mid-1970s the maker of Perrier wanted to expand its market here. The American to whom the company turned was stumped until he hit upon the idea of touting the mineral water as something “exclusive.” The idea worked magically, and the rest is history. There is some irony in what has happened since, of course. As bottled water came to be regarded as a necessity of daily life, and as the producers began vying among themselves, Perrier has lost its exclusivity.

Madison Avenue’s effort was aided, I think, by one indispensable development. Around 1990 the notion was stressed that the greater your intake of water the better your health. I remember a young colleague at work who one day started carrying a large bottle of water. His doctor told him his health would benefit from drinking a lot of water, he explained. Not that he had appeared dehydrated before.

Soon enough I started to notice young women on the subway carrying a bottle of similar size, often drinking from it right there — none too attractive a spectacle. Because of that perhaps, even today I become self-conscious when I go to a college to talk and drink from the bottle placed on the podium.

The amount of water you are supposed to take in every day — the so called “8 times 8 rule” that is often bandied about by drinkers of bottled water — is hokum. The rule specifies the daily intake of 8 glasses of water, each containing 8 ounces (239 grams). But most of the water your body needs is provided by the food and drinks you normally have, experts say.

In any case, the amazing growth in the consumption of bottled water is clear in statistics. According to the Earth Policy Institute that seeks ways of achieving “an environmentally sustainable economy,” Americans on average drank 1.6 gallons (6 liters) of bottled water during the year 1976. By 1990 the figure had grown to 8.8 gallons (33.3 litters), and this year it is expected to top 30 gallons (113.6 litters).

By comparison, in 1980 the average American consumed 27.6 gallons (104.5 liters) of milk. Its consumption has gradually declined since, however, so that the figure is expected to be down to 21.0 gallons (79.5 liters), far less than that of bottled water. The consumption of coffee has fluctuated in the meantime, but in 2005 its consumption was also overtaken by that of bottled water.

You might say there should be nothing wrong with people drinking water. There isn’t, except, well, that it is water, and that it comes in bottles. As those who frown upon the growing popularity of bottled water point out, tap water in the U.S. is just fine: It is closely regulated by government agencies and in some cities such as New York and San Francisco it is the very best in quality.

Also, compared with bottled water, tap water is unimaginably cheap. By one calculation, one brand of “designer water” is nearly 3,000 times more expensive than tap water.

The plastic bottles in which most water is sold on the market create enormous amounts of garbage. At least three quarters of empty plastic bottles go straight to landfills and other dumps. According to one report, in California alone 1 billion plastic bottles are dumped, unrecycled, every year now.

You might demur that it’s unfair to be so hard on bottled water when most soft drinks also come in plastic bottles. True, and the per capita consumption of soft drinks, though proportionately shrinking, is still twice that of bottled water. But there is the rub: In total number of units, the empty bottles of bottled water and soft drinks are now about the same. This has come about partly because, even as containers for soft drinks have become larger over the years, containers for bottled water have grown smaller — to cater to the preference for “personal-use” bottles.

Also, soft drinks, though they have their own problems, have some excuse, however feeble: At least they don’t come out of faucets or water fountains, whereas water does.

For all the arguments made against bottled water, though, there is little prospect for its consumption to decline for some years to come. Organizations such as the Earth Policy Institute and the Water Project strongly advocate a return to tap water. As well, some U.S. municipalities, such as Anderson’s Salt Lake City, have taken steps to discourage the use of bottle water.

Yet any serious measures to curb or reduce the use of bottled water, such as sizable taxation, will meet stiff opposition from the industry that makes good profits out of practically nothing. After all, the consumer is king in this country, and the “water culture” bottled water has created seems to have taken root.

This story was originally published in the Dec. 31, 2007 issue of The Japan Times.

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist in New York.