US Bottled Water Sales Down Slightly. Why Are So Few Willing To Change?


Water bottle. Image credit:Flickr, How Can I Recycle This?

The grocery store shelf space dedicated to bottled water seems to have lessened a bit. Are there reliable data to show how much, and why? Following a decade of booming sales growth, Washington Post reports, bottled water sales have flattened and are receding a bit. WaPo calls bottled water sales "tapped out," citing Nestle's recent profit slip of 2.7% as evidence. This is against a background in which... "Sales of bottled water swelled 59 percent to $5.1 billion between 2003 to 2008, making it one of the fastest growing beverages." Although any "tapped out" indications are welcomed, environmentally speaking, the overall the rate of consumer behavior change is trivial, at least in the USA, where it is estimated that "Per-capita consumption [of bottled water] dropped from 29 gallons to 28.5."I could find no publicly available data regrding which portion of the sales fall off might be attributable to environmental advocacy campaigns, and which portion might be due people having less money to spend on luxury goods (which I think fairly describes bottled water).

In parts Europe, I am told, some folks even cook with bottled water. It may be a long established habit that comes from the government's slowness in establishing reliable potable water standards and providing public water supplies following the world wars. (World War II was 60 years ago - that's a long habit.) Still, I can't imagine a bottled water ban being a welcome development when they are used to cooking with it. Luckily, this is not the situation in America.

There are indeed extenuating circumstances in the USA: places where drinking and cooking with bottled water is the only logical choice and will remain so. In the Dakota's, for example, there are locales where water has dissolved solids so high a shower makes your hair hard. There are rural municipalities where high levels of arsenic is naturally present and sufficient treatment for removal has not yet been accomplished. But for most US citizens, thankfully, clean, decent or even excellent tasting tap water is the rule, not the exception.

Why is US population so slow to break the bottled water habit?
To get an understanding of why, in the midst of a major economic depression and facing a potential climate catastrophe, bottled water sales are hanging on surprisingly well, we need to address this question. 'What did folks drink before bottled water sales took off in the late 1990's?' Did something change that made them fearful, reinforcing their openness to bottled water marketing campaigns? Or is convenience the main factor?

Watch me make both "conservatives" and "liberals" mad.
I suspect that convenience and a recently acquired habit are major reasons why most people still buy so much bottled water. The BPA in water bottles thing didn't help. That said, there have been gradual social and political changes which have come to reinforce the convenience factor. Describing these succinctly is sure to make both conservatives and progressives angry; but here goes. These two thoughts are not presented in rank order of importance, by the way. They feed off each other.

Environmental activists messed with our minds.
Many Americans have increasingly come to think of drinking tap water as an unsafe act, in direct response to the long running anti-chlorine advocacy efforts of environmental activists. In the USA, chlorination is the single most common method of keeping potable water safe during water distribution. Since the late 1980's, however, a small but highly influential segment of the environmental activist community has pushed for a total ban on the chlorine industry. Anytime a health or ecological problem occurs, they look for a chlorine ion and, if a few millimoles are implicated, they offer this as convincing proof that banning chlorine would make the world a better place. Never mind that the entire population of the USA relies on tap water chlorination to prevent the kind of public health disasters like Chicago experienced in the 1850's, when over 5% of it's population was killed by a cholera outbreak.

Loss of government trust.
The second change-driving factor is increasing lack of trust in government to solve public health problems, in general. In particular, a de-regulatory, 'get government off our back' ideological outlook permeated the halls of Congress and the Executive Branch coinciding with the period in which bottled water sales accelerated. Obviously it's not a direct cause effect relationship, but a lack of public trust certainly reinforces the feeling that 'government is not looking out for our health us so we better depend on bottled water.'

The upshot of that period is that for nearly a decade, USEPA was "discouraged", I'd say is the word, from investing more in researching water treatment technology and in updating water standards. State and local governments have budget limitations which now, especially, make standards enforcement difficult.

'So what' you say?
There will always be people who want less government involvement with everything except national defense, drinking water included. Numerous other niche viewpoints abound. Some people are terrified of fluoridated tap water, and so go with bottled; while others are willing to pay extra for bottled water with fluorine added! Rather than try to field those minority views, lets talk money.

Bottled water is an orders-of-magnitude more expensive way to get safe decent tasting water. It's been that way since the 1850's (when the seminal Chicago & London cholera outbreaks occurred). Those outbreaks led to development of the treatment technologies we rely on and to the public service models that have predominated in water supply for over a century. If you don't like the taste, filter it. Won't cost much.

How do we make tap water the water of choice? Love to hear your comments.

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