Bottled Water Sales Flatten During Recession

Students at the University of Hartford try water taste test i i

Students at the University of Hartford participate in a taste test to see if they can tell the difference between bottled water and tap water. Nancy Eve Cohen/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Nancy Eve Cohen/NPR
Students at the University of Hartford try water taste test

Students at the University of Hartford participate in a taste test to see if they can tell the difference between bottled water and tap water.

Nancy Eve Cohen/NPR
Bottled water for sale

Bottled water for sale outside a gas station in New Canaan, Conn. Nancy Eve Cohen/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Nancy Eve Cohen/NPR

After years of double-digit increases, bottled water sales have stopped rising. Industry analysts say the economy is driving the change, but they also say environmentalists may be having an effect.

Decades ago, when people were thirsty, they looked for a water fountain or turned on the tap.

Caitlin Corner-Dolloff of the group Corporate Accountability International is running a taste test at the University of Hartford to convince students that there's not much difference between bottled water and tap water.

Bottled Water Critics

Criticism of bottled water was first sparked a couple of years ago when concern about dependence on fossil fuels coincided with a rise in bottled water consumption.

Environmentalists have been calling for people to give up the bottle ever since, and for states to increase recycling. Now the entire bottled water market is down 1 percent.

"Anecdotally, we believe that consumers last year increasingly drank more tap water," says Gary Hemphill, who tracks sales for the Beverage Marketing Corporation.

He says the sale of most nonalcoholic beverages fell last year because of the economy.

But he says that with water, there may be another issue: "The secondary reason — perhaps a little bit more difficult to measure, but nonetheless probably a factor — are environmental questions."

Bottles Under Fire

Attack on the bottle isn't only coming from environmentalists. Bottled water competitors, like Brita, which sells water filters, launched an ad campaign knocking the bottle.

NPR aired one this month: The ad says "Brita — providing water filtration solutions to help reduce bottled water waste."

But bottled water is still selling. Americans spent more than $11 billion on it last year. Kim Jeffrey, CEO of Nestle Waters North America, which owns Poland Spring and other brands, says that if environmental concerns are influencing sales, they're not having much of an impact.

"The problems we're seeing right now are very much attributable to the economic downturn, not to the fact that people are leaving bottled water in droves — because it's just not happening," he says.

The Plastic Tally

At Geissler's Supermarket in East Windsor, Conn., some people are buying two cases, or 48 bottles, a week. Other customers are cutting back.

"I used to buy a case once in a while, but I don't anymore," says Linda Lamarre, a special education consultant who's now down to a couple of bottles a week. She says she's watching her pennies.

Lenny Whitten, a plumber, used to buy a case a week, but now fills the same bottle with tap water over and over. He says he does it because he doesn't want to fill up landfills with plastic that doesn't decompose.

Jeffrey of Nestle Waters says his company is trying to use less plastic resin. A one-half liter of Poland Spring used to be made from 14 1/2 grams.

"Today it's less than 12 1/2 grams," he says. "That move down saved us about 65 million pounds of resin a year and had about a 10 percent reduction in our greenhouse gas emissions. But the fact that the bottle's still there suggests we have more work to do, and that's in the area of recycling."

Jeffrey says there should be curbside recycling for everyone. But bottled water critics still want fewer bottles.

Nancy Cohen reports for member station WNPR.

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