Why Americans Are Obsessed With Bottled Water

The author of 'Bottlemania' addresses the country's addiction to bottled water and its environmental costs.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

IRA FLATOW, host:

And what if I told you that my new business plan - I've got a new business. This is how it's going to work. I want to sell you something that most people can already get for free, or almost free, and you're going to pay a lot more money for it. And my product costs lots more, but the quality is about the same as the less expensive stuff, or almost free stuff, that you're getting now. And by the way, the cheap stuff is already being delivered straight to your home. You don't even have to transport it anywhere. You probably think I'm a bit nuts to go into business, right?

Well, how did bottled water business become an 11 billion-dollar industry in this country? And bottling something that comes right to your tap already, that's what we'll be talking about for the rest of the hour. Plus, you've heard of a carbon footprint, but what about a water footprint? My next guest says that it takes about 53 gallons of water to make a simple, single cup of coffee, about 530 gallons go in to a cotton t-shirt. Where does this water come from? And are we going to use it all up? Five hundred and it's for 53 gallons of water make a single cup of coffee.

Here to tell us more is Elizabeth Royte, a freelance environmental writer based in Brooklyn, and the author of the new book, "Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It." She joins us from Rhinebeck, New York. Hi. Welcome to Science Friday.

Ms. ELIZABETH ROYTE (Author, "Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It"): Thank you very much.

FLATOW: When did bottled water take off here in the States?

Ms. ROYTE: You can pretty easily date it to 1977 when Perrier was introduced to urban areas, and it was a real niche product. It was really popular with urban professionals. People weren't walking down the street swigging from green glass bottles. But it started to change in 1989 with a sort of an uneventful, well, unspectacular, technological innovation. Bottlers could put water into very lightweight, cheap, clear, very crystal clear, plastic called PET plastic. And that's when the market really started to take off.

FLATOW: Mm.

Ms. ROYTE: The water was much cheaper. And then the next big moment in the history of bottled water was in the '90s, when Coke and Pepsi got into the business, they were taking criticism for pushing sugary, fattening drinks on us.

FLATOW: Are...

Ms. ROYTE: We have an obesity epidemic and they each made their own bottled water.

FLATOW: All right. Elizabeth, hang on..

Ms. ROYTE: Yeah.

FLATOW: Because we have to take a break.

Ms. ROYTE: Oh, sorry.

FLATOW: To come back - it's OK. That's what I'm here for.

Ms. ROYTE: OK.

FLATOW: We'll come back with Elizabeth Royte after this break and your questions. Stay with us. We'll be right back.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow and this is Talk of the Nation: Science Friday from NPR News.

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FLATOW: You're listening to Talk of the Nation: Science Friday. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking with Elizabeth Royte. She is the author of "Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It." Our number 1-800-989-8255. Elizabeth, why did we buy something that comes out of our tap, and we can get for next to nothing?

Ms. ROYTE: Well, we're pretty susceptible to marketing. Hundreds of millions of dollars were spent, telling us that the water they were selling was pure, and healthful, and clean, and crisp, and it sounded really good, and there wasn't much competition from tap water. Utilities don't have marketing budgets and they're not telling you, drink more tap water, it'll help you do your yoga poses. So, it was pretty much - it had all of our attention, and we bought up those messages. It was also, you know, it's fashionable. There were water - they gave us the idea that water signified that it was classy to drink this water, and their messages gradually morphed from fashion to fear, as they played on ideas that perhaps...

FLATOW: Mm-hm.

Ms. ROYTE: Tap water wasn't always so great.

FLATOW: Mm-hm. And I've heard statistics thrown around that say that 60 percent of all the bottled water really starts out at the tap.

Ms. ROYTE: I've heard the number in the 40s, 40-something percent, and what that's referring to is Coke's water, Dasani, and Pepsi's water, Aquafina, the number one and number two bestselling brands. And they do start from municipal supplies. But it isn't just tap water, because they take the water and they run it through micro-filters and reverse osmosis, and expose it to ultraviolet light and ozonation, so - and then, they put it into metal - plastic bottles. So it isn't going back out into the distribution system, through pipes that may or may not be, whatever.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Yeah. You've also talked about the importance of the bottle. You said earlier that it wasn't until they came up with a new kind of bottle that it took off.

Ms. ROYTE: Mm-hm.

FLATOW: What was that all about?

Ms. ROYTE: Oh, that was - well, it was like Avian, when that was first introduced to this country. It was in a PVC bottle. It was - it cost the bottlers more, and it was a little bit cloudy and a little bit heavier. But the PET bottle made from polyethylene terephthalate is very lightweight, and cheap, and clear, and it makes the water look good. So, that was a big change and it made it possible for more people to get into the business, and ship water over here.

FLATOW: Mm-hm. Let's talk about Poland Springs. Is it - they all - the commercial says it comes from springs in Maine.

Ms. ROYTE: It does.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: And give us the life cycle of a glass of Poland Spring water.

Ms. ROYTE: OK. There are eight or nine different sources in Maine that supply Poland Springs, a company with a long history. Poland Springs started in 1845, but it was bought by Nestle in the '90s. And now, they've had - they've kept - keep going to new towns to find new sources of water, because the market is growing so quickly. So they drill - dig a - drill a borehole near a spring. They don't actually collect the water where it's bubbling up out of the ground. There is an exemption from the FDA that says that you can call it spring water if you collect it nearby, and there's a hydrological connection with the actual spring.

So they pump the water out of the ground. It goes into a tanker truck, a big long silver truck which makes its way to one of two bottling plants in Maine. And then, they put it into the little bottles, and send those little bottles off to distribution centers in New England, and New York, and a little bit farther. But it is a regional brand. It's a large regional brand. It's their best selling brand, that and Arrowhead. They also own Deer Park, Ice Mountain, and Ozaka, and Zephyrhills.

FLATOW: Mm-hm.

Ms. ROYTE: So they are the largest bottled water company in the country.

FLATOW: Do people who live in those communities, worry that they're going to lose their own natural supply of water?

Ms. ROYTE: Some of them do and some of them don't. And I focus on the town where there's been a lot of people saying they don't want it, and they're worried about their wells. They're worried about the surrounding ecosystem, and there have been fights in other towns. War - there are water wars really, with people, very, very angry, marching around, writing scathing letters to editors, really fighting this company, going to court over it, losing their life's savings. But that said, there are people who also welcome the jobs, and they see it as a clean industry.

FLATOW: Mm-hm.

Ms. ROYTE: So, there's two sides to it, as usual.

FLATOW: Mm-hm. We have a question from Second Life from Prospero Linden who writes, one question I have about those 53 gallons of water that go into the single cup of coffee is, how much of that water is really lost? How much is recycled into the system?

Ms. ROYTE: Well, my book is that bottled water - not - someone else wrote a book about coffee water prints. But yes, and with agriculture, a lot of it goes back down into this - into the aquifer, into the same watershed. And then, I guess they call the water that moves around, when it's exported in the coffee beans, virtual water or embodied water. So, water ends up in other places.

FLATOW: Mm.

Ms. ROYTE: Embodied by the product, whether it's a hamburger, or a t-shirt, or coffee. But yes, with agriculture, a lot of it does stay...

FLATOW: Yeah.

Ms. ROYTE: In the same watershed.

FLATOW: Another question from Bow Ore (ph) in Second Life is, is Fiji actually entirely water from Fiji?

Ms. ROYTE: Entirely, yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: So, it's truck shipped all the way over from the other side of the world?

Ms. ROYTE: First shipped, then truck. Yes, 5,000 miles in the ship and then distributed to the country on trucks.

FLATOW: That takes a lot of oil. Does it?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ROYTE: Yes, it does. And that's why Fiji, as I say in the book, has become the poster child for the carbon footprint of bottled water, and the company has listened to this complaint and has not only gone carbon neutral, but now claims to be carbon negative, buying offsets and things.

FLATOW: Mm-hm.

Ms. ROYTE: But they are still sending the water away from Fiji to places all around the world.

FLATOW: Now, you write in your book that when you first started looking into bottled water, you thought that, gee, you would come away saying, oh, we can get the same water out of a tap.

Ms. ROYTE: Mm-hm.

FLATOW: But now you've sort of changed your mind a bit.

Ms. ROYTE: Yeah, I went into it thinking that it was pretty simple, black and white. And the more I learned, the more I realize it's complicated. And I'm lucky to live in New York and have really great water. But it's - other people aren't so lucky. In fact, 89.3 of the community water systems in this country do meet or exceed federal standards, but that still leaves millions of people. Actually, 29 million people drinking water that doesn't make the grade. And so, I found out what utilities do to clean up their water, and some do it more successfully than others.

FLATOW: Mm-hm.

Ms. ROYTE: But you can see why many people are skeptical of the tap water. And to them, I say, find out what exactly is going on in your water, and then get a good filter to deal with it.

FLATOW: What is a good filter?

Ms. ROYTE: A good filter is like a reverse-osmosis filter, which takes out nearly everything. It takes out all the - you know, these industrial contaminants, agricultural contaminants, trichloride, rocket fuel. So - but they're expensive upfront, although you'll save money in the long run, buying this filter and maintaining it than overbuying bottled water for the rest of your life. So, you know, there's the cost of the filter, they waste a bit of water by - they force the water through a membrane, and there's rejected water in sort of a brine with all these contaminants that goes down your drain. So there's, you know...

FLATOW: Yeah.

Ms. ROYTE: A trade-off with everything.

FLATOW: What about these big blocks of carbon for the under-sink filters? That's not enough, you're saying.

Ms. ROYTE: It's enough - it depends what your issue is. It - that will - that's a cheaper filter, easier to maintain, doesn't waste as much water. So I would go to that first if - depending on the contaminants. But if there were things that you are - that that couldn't deal with, go to the RO. I have some links on my Web site that tell you how to evaluate what kind of filter to get.

FLATOW: Mm.

Ms. ROYTE: And what they do and the We bsite is simple. It's just bottlemania.net and then go to the links page, and you'll find all these great sources to guide you through it.

FLATOW: Well, we're talking with the author of "Bottlemania," Elizabeth Royte, and you can go to her Web site, and if you forget, you go to Science Friday, and we'll send you to that Web site. So, you had your mind changed a little bit about the whole idea about how water is handled, and used, and where it comes from, where it goes.

Ms. ROYTE: Yeah, I learned that bottled water in itself isn't the worst thing in the world. I mean, after I looked at it, and I looked at this carbon footprint, I looked at the plastics issue, the waste, the litter, the privatization. I mean the - a huge issue of whether companies can come in, and take water away and make money off of it. But - so it isn't the worst thing in the world. But you know, it's better to buy water than to buy a soda, of course. But the big message in the book is that if our political leaders continue to underfund and ignore the nation's water infrastructure, and the public continues to flee municipal supplies for private, these systems are going to degrade to the point where only people who can afford to buy good water, are going to have it.

FLATOW: Mm-hm.

Ms. ROYTE: And that would be a real tragedy.

FLATOW: Mm-hm.

Ms. ROYTE: So, the book is really about protecting and improving municipal supplies.

FLATOW: Hi. Eddie in Tallahassee, you're next on Science Friday. Welcome.

EDDIE (Caller): Hi, how are you doing?

FLATOW: Hi there.

EDDIE: I was just wondering if these big companies are doing anything to sort of get away from the production of these PET plastics, because, I mean, where are all these empty bottles going in the first place? I mean, aren't they sitting in the landfill for thousands of years?

Ms. ROYTE: They're not sitting for thousands of years yet because it's not that old. But there have been projections that they'll last that long. They like PET because it's light in shade, but it does the job and they have responded to all this criticism by light weighting the bottles, using fewer grams of plastic in them. The bottles are completely recyclable, or I should say, down-cyclable. They're not being made into new water bottles.

When they're collected for recycling, they're down-cycled into things like carpeting, or sleeping-bag filling, or fleece jackets. Things that are, of course, going to be used once and then go to a land fill. But the bigger problem is that only about 15 percent of these bottles make it back into recycling systems. People aren't bringing - hanging on to the bottles 'til they find a blue bin. People drink water on the go, and they're throwing the bottles out, and so, they're turning into litter, floating into waterways in oceans, or getting buried in dumps, or burned in incinerators.

FLATOW: Mm-hm. Caroline in Anchorage. Hi, welcome to Science Friday.

CAROLINE (Caller): Thank you very much. I'm just wondering - a couple of things. Number one, is this going to make it easier for multinationals to control water supplies? For instance, in India, where people have to queue up to buy water with their empty Coke bottles or whatever. And then the other question has to do with the dichotomy between people being environmentally sensitive and slugging down this. It sounds like we're being hosed by the hype, and I don't understand why people can't see the damage that they're doing and regulate all areas of their life.

Ms. ROYTE: First thing's first, multinationals, India, yeah, I write a bit about that in my book. Coke controls a lot of water in India. People are very angry. There's a lot of people devoted to getting rid of Coke in India. And people who - poor people who end up paying more for water all around the world and as the municipal water supplies decline, rich people are buying water. They can - they don't have a problem buying bottled water. But it's poor people who end up going far, spending hours and spending more money, filling up those containers. I don't talk a lot about that in my book, because so many other authors have covered this, the global water situation. I write about privatization here in the U.S. as it pertains to the bottled water issue.

FLATOW: Mm.

Ms. ROYTE: And the question about environmentally - people being environmentally sensitive, how can they do this? I think people just don't understand. We forget that plastic comes from oil. We don't think about where anything goes after it leaves us, whether it's waste or wastewater. So, I just hope that as people become educated about the environmental and social toll of the bottles and tap water - because everything has an impact - that they'll make an informed decision. But that said, some people are drinking it because they really don't like their tap water, or it contains unhealthy ingredients.

FLATOW: Mm.

Ms. ROYTE: So, there are lots of reasons people do it.

FLATOW: Talking with Elizabeth Royte, author of "Bottlemania," on Talk of the Nation: Science Friday from NPR News. So, you're saying that first, see if - test your water to see if it's okay, then you might not need to get any bottled water.

Ms. ROYTE: Yeah.

FLATOW: And then if it's not okay, you might want to invest in a high-quality water filter.

Ms. ROYTE: Right. A good place to start is with your right-to-know report or consumer-confidence report. If you are on a community water system, that utility is required to send you a report each year, and if you recycled it and don't know where it is, you can look at it online. But that is an annual report and if you want a closer look, another snap shot, you should do the - a test and send it to a certified lab. And also on my Web site, I tell you how to find a lab.

FLATOW: Mm.

Ms. ROYTE: That's what I did in New York. Everyone knows that New York has great water. But the more I learned about...

FLATOW: Because it comes from the rain. It's actually rainwater.

Ms. ROYTE: And Snow Mountain.

FLATOW: Snow Mountain, yeah.

Ms. ROYTE: Yup, up in the Catskills. But I became concerned about disinfection byproducts. I learned that organic material in the reservoirs can mix with chlorine to make these byproducts that have been linked with cancers. And my annual report said the levels were fine. But I learned how these things get averaged out and they can spike, and so I did my own test and it was extremely reassuring, and I realized I didn't have to invest in another kind of filter.

FLATOW: Are you concerned at all about the fear that some of the chemicals in the bottle leech out into the water, if they sit in the bottle too long?

Ms. ROYTE: I am - well, I'm not drinking bottled water.

FLATOW: Mm-hm.

Ms. ROYTE: So I don't have to think about it. I mean, I thought about it for the book and I've learned that the PET plastic does not contain phthalates. There's a lot of talk about phthalates, that's a plasticizer and it's an endocrine disrupter. But it's not in those number-one bottles. It is, however, in the number-two bottles, which are the one-gallon jugs of water and the two and a half gallons. So, that's number two plastic with phthalates, and there's a chemical in the hard polycarbonate bottles, which I've used - have used for 25 years, the Nalgene-type sport bottles, they have a chemical called disphenol A.

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. ROYTE: Also an endocrine disrupter. So, Nalgene has changed its formula to avoid the BPA. I haven't thrown out my Nalgenes, but I moved to a metal bottle. So like, I go back and forth between the two.

FLATOW: Mm. Right, let me get a question in from Dave. David in Columbia, South Carolina. Quickly, we've got about a minute left.

David (Caller): Oh, I just want to say, I really - when I was in Rome for a while, I used to love drinking water from the public water fountains there. And I don't know if there was an anatomy issue since, you know, since then about the water quality in Rome. But I was wondering about, you know, a correlation between the rise of bottled water, and the decline of public water fountains in the - in American cities.

Ms. ROYTE: Yeah, I think they're definitely linked, and even if the fountains are still there, I think there's a fear of fountains that is unfounded. I talked to microbiologists about what happens when people drink from them. I'm trying to encourage municipalities to install more fountains, and take better care of them and let's return to the public tap, because this is a zero-waste proposition and we'll save money and avoid waste by - if we could drink publicly instead of in little plastic bottles.

FLATOW: California is looking to turn wastewater back into drinking water, is it not?

Ms. ROYTE: Yeah, Southern California. They import most of their water, it's really expensive. It takes a ton of energy, and so they're starting to look at their waste water, not as something to get rid of in the oceans, but to run through a gazillion filters, much like Coke and Pepsi's, and turn it back into drinking water. I tasted it, it was fantastic. They put it back in the ground after they clean it up, and then utilities suck it out of this aquifer or this ground-water basin.

FLATOW: Yeah, they - just there's too much of a yuck factor still, to just put it back in a bottle, I guess.

Ms. ROYTE: Yeah, but they - no, don't say bottle. You mean put it back in the tap.

FLATOW: Or in the tap. That's what I meant, yeah.

Ms. ROYTE: They think that - yes, the Department of Health right now wants them to put it in the ground, but people at the Groundwater Replenishment Plant told me that in another 10 or 15 years, we're going to be looking back this time and laughing at ourselves for taking very expensively-cleaned, good water and putting it in the ground, and we'll be drinking it directly later.

FLATOW: That's a hopeful sign. Thank you for taking time to be with us today.

Ms. ROYTE: Thanks for having me on.

FLATOW: Have a happy holiday.

Ms. ROYTE: You, too.

FLATOW: Elizabeth Royte, author of "Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It," and if you can over to our Web site, you can get a link to her Web page, if you can't find it there. That's about all the time we have today.

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