Bottled & Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession With Bottled Water (Book Review)

gleick and book cover image
©. Island Press

© Island Press

Every second of every day, a thousand Americans buy and drink a plastic bottle of commercially produced water, adding up to 85 million bottles a day. And for each one consumed in the US, four more are consumed around the world. The book Bottled & Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession With Bottled Water by Peter Gleick starts out with these statistics.

With just a quick glance it is abundantly clear that bottled water is an issue. But what kind of issue? How does it affect our health? Our access to water both at home and in public places? Our reliance on oil? How does it affect the future of our fresh water management both in the US and globally? These are just a few of the questions Gleick addresses within this fascinating read.

"I believe that bottled water is a symptom of a larger set of issues: the long-term decay of our public water systems, inequitable access to safe water around the world, our susceptibility to advertising and marketing, and a society trained from birth the buy, consume, and throw away," writes Gleick.

Our fear of disease, and our inability to grasp the true cost of convenience are perhaps the two strongest culprits within the US.

drinking fountain photo

Steve Snodgrass/CC BY 1.0

Fearing Our Tap Water
As far as our worry over the spread of contagions goes, that has strong foundations in history. As Gleick points out, the history of water-related diseases and pollution has made us suspicious of public water supplies. However, even as we become better at treating water to reduce diseases, we also become better at dumping a whole range of pollutants into lakes and rivers. From source to tap, we have been taught to be wary.

The reality is that by the middle of the last century, water-related diseases dropped by 95% and they still continue to drop. Still, that old fear of municipal water has given bottled water companies an edge in the market place, playing off that fear even to the point of untruth.

Winning The Battle Over Health Concerns
The real battle to get us off bottled water will be won in large part by countering these claims that bottled water is safer with evidence that municipal water actually meets far stricter regulations for safety and cleanliness, as Gleick points out with study after study in his book.

For example, "While both Fiji Water and Cleveland's tap water met all federal standards, the lab tests reportedly indicated that Fiji Water contained volatile plastic compounds, 40 times more bacteria than are founding well-run municipal water systems, and most noticeably, over six micrograms per liter of arsenic. Cleveland tap water had no measurable arsenic."

Gleick notes, "[F]ederal agencies given oversight over our drinking water have no authority over bottled water -- a product never anticipated by the drafters of the original federal drinking water laws."

Instead, this is the realm of the FDA, and the FDA regulations only apply to products sold in interstate commerce, "leaving a vast amount of bottled water that never enters 'interstate commerce' without consistent protection. By some estimates, this loophole alone exempts 60 to 70 percent of all bottled water from federal regulations."

Gleick cites a whole range of problems with the way bottled water is regulated, making it clear that we should be far more suspicious of what we're drinking when we pop open a plastic bottle than when we turn on a tap. Even when problems are found in bottled water, there is typically little or no action to remedy the problem, either through recalls of the water or though changes in regulations or testing.

bottled water photo

stevendepolo/CC BY 1.0

Our Disposable Planet
The second part of the battle to get us away from bottled water, is our problem is our commitment to convenience, even to the denial of the true environmental and economic cost of that convenience.

Gleick notes, "If the only containers available for water were glass or aluminum cans, I believe that sales of bottled water would never have taken off."

But we found a way to make it more convenient: thin, lightweight plastic. It is far more convenient for us, as we carry around bottles of water from here to there. But it has proven to be a weighty burden on the environment.

"Making the plastic for a liter bottle of water actually takes three or four more liters of water itself. The real problem, though is the energy cost: PET itself is typically made from petroleum. Making a kilogram of PET, which is enough for around 30 one-liter plastic bottles, takes around 3 liters of petroleum. More energy is then required to turn that PET into bottles, to filter, ozone, or otherwise purify the water, to run the bottling machines, and to chill the bottle before use. And even more substantively, it takes a lot of energy -- almost all in the form of fossil fuels -- to move the finished product to the place where you buy it... Put all these different pieces together -- materials, production, and transportation -- and the energy costs of bottled water can be the oil equivalent of a quarter or more of the volume of the bottle. And this energy cost is a thousand times larger than the energy required to procure, process, treat, and deliver tap water."

Convenient? Disposable? Cheap? None of these words apply to bottled water once we understand the true cost. Gleick does an excellent job in Bottled & Sold of laying out the many details of the problems with convenience.

Circling Back Around to Reality
Let's admit it. For the most part, we're blind to how far advertising has gone to make us drink bottled water instead of tap -- blind even to the lack of access to tap water in public places like stadiums and parks. We're simply used to the fact that there is bottled water somewhere, even if that means free water is nowhere.

Yet is access to clean water not a basic human right? The UN declared it so in 2010. So even on the most basic level, aren't building codes that ignore the installation of drinking fountains, and regulations that ignore the upkeep of existing fountains, somehow ignoring a basic human right?

Gleick discusses the notion of us coming into a new age of water management. "The growing use of bottled water is evidence that the old ways of managing water challenges are putting us on the wrong side of history. We must do more than just "more of the same" if we are going to truly address global water problems."

While Gleick fears that "this Third Age could consist of the complete abandonment of our efforts to provide safe public tap water for all in favor of privately produced and sold bottled water," that fear doesn't seem to be panning out, thankfully.

As Gleick points out, the recent economic crunch has lead many to question the purchases of bottled water, including local, state and federal governments. Cities and states are now cutting back on or even banning the purchase of bottled water for meetings, with some electing to spend monies on public fountains instead.

We may indeed come back around to the reality of the bottled water industry -- that it is a sign of a far deeper problem with the way we manage water supplies, one that needs to be addressed immediately. The growth of bottled water is hopefully a temporary blip on the map of how we use water in modern times.

"In the end, the arguments for and against bottled water are more than simply environmental or economic. The arguments have deeper psychological underpinnings, philosophical and ideological implications, and social subtexts about public rights versus private goods, the human right to water, free markets, the appropriate role of governments, and conflicting visions of the future."

Gleick makes a strong, supported, and fair case for for the status of bottled water in our consumer stream, with thorough research into many aspects of bottled water and municipal water supplies. Bottled & Sold is a must-read for anyone concerned about the bottled water industry or who advocates returning to the tap.

Don't miss the live discussion with Peter Gleick on November 17, 2011 at 3pm Eastern.