MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Starting July 1st, the city and county of San Francisco will start weaning themselves off the bottle. No more bottled water. Mayor Gavin Newsom said the environmental impact of the bottled water industry has been profound and he cited landfills, aquifers, transportation costs. The bottled water business is a marvel of our times, a case of people being increasingly willing to pay for something that they can just as easily have for free.

The business is the subject of an article in Fast Company magazine called "Message in a Bottle." That's by Charles Fishman.

And Charles Fishman, you begin your article by telling us how much we spend on bottled water and as a nation, it's a lot.

Mr. CHARLES FISHMAN (Senior Writer, Fast Company Magazine): We spent $15 billion last year on bottled water, more than we spent on iPods. More than we spent going to the movies. And 30 years ago, those of us who are old enough to remember, we raised up whole generations who never had a bottle of water. So it's a brand new industry.

SIEGEL: Now, obviously, if people are buying still water, they are at least implicitly saying that there's something that's either more healthful or more tasty about what's in the bottle than what comes out of the tap at home. Is there?

Mr. FISHMAN: Well, there isn't anything in particular more healthful about it. I'm not even sure I agree that that's what they are saying. I think the bottled water craze was built on the fitness craze and the fashion craze. Perrier and Evian introduced bottled water into America in the early 1980s. You may remember that Madonna appeared famously in concert on stage with her bottle of Evian. I think now that it's so common, it's the other way around. The bottled water somehow calls into question the tap water. But, in fact, the additional marvel, or the real marvel is that the tap water system, the municipal water systems in this country, are incredibly safe and provide darn good drinking water to 300 million people every day.

SIEGEL: And there's an odd fact that you sight in your article, odd at least to me, that 24 percent of the bottled water market is in fact tap water repackaged by Coke and Pepsi.

Mr. FISHMAN: Isn't that amazing? When we start consuming something, we are really willing to consume it. Dasani and Aquafina are the number one and number two brands of bottled water in the country. Dasani is from Coke, Aquafina is from Pepsi, and they are purified tap water bottled locally in whatever community you're buying it. So the trucking costs are much lower. They are literally repurifying what is already clean water and repackaging it and selling it to us and together they account for a quarter of the bottled water that we buy and consume.

SIEGEL: Now for water to be shipped all over the country or even from a nearby Aquafina or Dasani bottling plant and then to do something with the plastic bottles, which I gather revolutionized the entire bottled water business here, means that there is some real environmental impact of the bottled water business.

Mr. FISHMAN: Well, sure, water is extremely heavy, and we drink one billion bottles of bottled water a week in this country alone and so you're moving all that water around in a vast convoy of trucks. That doesn't even count the water that comes in from Germany and Norway and Iceland and so forth by ship. And unfortunately - and I think the companies bear some responsibility for this, but we consumers bear most of the responsibility - more than 70 percent of the plastic bottles in which bottled water is typically sold are never recycled.

So something like 38 billion plastic bottles end up in the landfill every year, and that really is simply pure waste. Each of those plastic bottles is a kind of remarkable creation and a remarkable resource and so the water business, which is in some sense a voluntary business, you know, you go get a bottle of water. There are still water fountains around; you still have water in your house. It really creates this unfortunate waste stream that doesn't need to exist.

SIEGEL: You are describing the most, it would seem, notorious case of conspicuous consumption in modern American life.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: Just people deciding to having plastic bottles that they will leave somewhere in the sidewalk something that they could just as easily take from the tap at home.

Mr. FISHMAN: Well, the bottle themselves each cost a nickel. So think about that in terms of the 38 billion bottles we throw away. I'm not sure I would call it the most notorious case of conspicuous consumption. How do you compare bottled water with driving a Hummer? How do you compare bottled water with smoking cigarettes?

Drinking water is good news. It is in fact healthy as the industry says. We now drink more bottled water than coffee or milk or alcohol, but I think the industry has become so large that it's worth asking the question what's the impact of a kind of thoughtlessness about constantly reaching for the bottle of water.

SIEGEL: Charles Fishman, thank you very much for talking with us today.

Mr. FISHMAN: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: And Charles Fishman's article appears in Fast Company magazine. It's called "Message in a Bottle."

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