Elizabeth Royte. Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It. London: Bloomsbury, 2008. 248 pp. $24.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-59691-371-4.
Reviewed by Eliza L. Martin (UC Santa Cruz)
Published on H-Water (May, 2009)
Commissioned by Justin M. Scott-Coe (Monte Vista Water District; Claremont Graduate University)
I Wouldn't Drink That
Americans and bottled water--what is the deal? Can anyone leave home without their plastic bottle of water? Americans view bottled water as commonplace and normal, those plastic bottles are ubiquitous, but actually the practice is a bit odd. When my parents were kids, they never had a bottle of water stuck in their sack lunch--they used the water fountain. What happened? Why are people now willing to pay a premium for something they can get cheaply out of their tap? And what is the environmental and social impact of the choice to buy bottled?
In her book Bottlemania, Elizabeth Royte offers a balanced, accessible account of the rise in popularity of bottled water, while laying out the pros and cons of both bottled and tap water from health, environmental, and ethical perspectives. People in the United States are beginning to question the marketing juggernaut that is bottled water, yet the business still generates billions of dollars annually for multinational corporations and boutique bottlers. Throughout her book, Royte uses the small town of Fryeburg, Maine, as a central example to explore the questions bottling water generates from a community to a global level.
Royte traces the “mania” to advertising. She calls bottled water a “marketing coup,” as advertising tied bottled water to increasingly pervasive ideas about health, purity, and convenience, transforming drinking water into a private, portable, individual experience imbued with social meaning (p. 41). Bottled water is not new; by the mid-nineteenth century, commercialized bottled water had hit the market, yet Perrier, arriving in the late 1970s, was the first successful mass-marketed bottled water brand in the United States. The product appealed to ideas of luxury, class consciousness, and health. With Perrier, water began to carry social capital. Bottled water sales shot up in the 1990s. Increased advertising, rising awareness of health concerns--including the “everyone needs eight glasses a day” myth--and the advent of a new type of plastic all contributed to the boom. PET plastic, or polyethylene terephthalate, the light, durable, strong, cheap variety we use today, makes the product more attractive than the original polyvinal chloride and more portable than glass. PET allowed bottled water to become a viable alternative to the single-serving can of soda, leading bottled water sales to hit approximately sixty billion dollars in 2006.
Yet people are beginning to question the social phenomenon that is bottled water. The current backlash against bottled water takes many forms, from alarm over environmental impacts to questionable water purity. While bottled water is allowed the same impurities as tap water, bottlers do not have to disclose contaminants as public utilities are required to do, and bottling plants are also allowed to self-test, raising the specter of skewed results. Recently, detractors have begun to worry about the chemicals that leech into the water from the bottles themselves. Tapping into current concerns over fossil fuel use, the anti-bottle faction points out the large amount of petroleum used to manufacture, fill, and ship the bottles, then haul the trash away. Royte estimates that 85 percent of the bottles go un-recycled and end up in landfills, where the plastic can survive for thousands of years. Transporting water out of its original watershed concerns environmentalists and those who live in source communities. While bottlers insist their pumping is sustainable, we simply do not know enough to make these judgments. And what is sustainable for the aquifer may still have negative impacts on the surrounding environment. Royte notes that multinational corporations do little to contribute to source towns’ long-term economic welfare, instead leaving local and state governments to invest the capital needed to keep water clean while the corporations profit from a source that used to be part of the commons.
Royte moves from her critique of bottled to the positives and possible pitfalls of municipally supplied tap water. She visits facilities that supply New York City and Kansas City to take a closer look at where municipal water comes from and how it is prepared for consumption. She finds that tap water is itself a highly processed product. While the federal government deems 89 percent of the nation’s tap water to be safe, even after processing tap water can still house contaminants, such as bacteria, arsenic, pharmaceuticals, and other unregulated chemicals, not to mention the gunk that builds up in household pipes. And what about the other 11 percent that does not meet federal standards? Many aging municipal water infrastructures need expensive repairs, but people opting out of the public supply in favor of bottled only makes it more difficult for municipalities to fund these projects, opening the way for a possible class-based water hierarchy, where the rich can afford clean water while the poor are stuck with ever deteriorating public supplies.
Royte’s work is not a comprehensive look at the global or even North American water industry, but it does offer valuable insight into the bottling industry. While most of her story is set in the northeastern United States, and she travels no farther west than Kansas, Royte makes the point that the bottled water story is a global one. Commodification and corporate control of water are issues being dealt with worldwide. However, while Royte argues for the improvement of current hydraulic infrastructure, she could have placed more emphasis on protecting source supplies, which would reduce the amount of processing needed to create safe tap water. She also does not address the fact that even tap water can come from outside the local watershed, such as the northern California and Colorado River water, which sustains San Diego, California.
Basically, Royte finds that there is no clear winner in the bottled versus tap water stand-off. Each has its own pluses and pitfalls. With bottled, what we are left with is a vague notion that we just do not know enough. We do not know how to truly judge sustainable pumping levels, what the impacts will be on local environments, and whether the water is really safe to drink. Ultimately, the use of bottled water confirms water’s status as a commodity, a privately owned resource held under corporate control. Royte insists that “reliance on bottled water undermines confidence and investment in public water systems,” in effect draining valuable revenue from deteriorating infrastructure (p. 211). In the end, Royte sides with tap water. She concludes that we are better off with the not-quite-perfect, yet accountable, system we know. It is time to start investing in the current infrastructure to insure that tap water is a safe, palatable option for all of our children, not the fall back for those who cannot afford bottled.
On the other hand
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Eliza L. Martin. Review of Royte, Elizabeth, Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It.
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