Monday, March 23, 2009

Bottled Water: Sales, Gimmicks, and Greenwashing

Awareness of the environmental and political issues surrounding bottled water has been increasing, and bottled water sales have started to drop. That trend is accelerating. From England comes word that sales have “plunged.” by 9% in 2008. Bottled water spokesmen have tried to blame the drop on cool weather last summer, something that is not likely to fly with environmentalists, whose campaigns to raise awareness of the waste and pollution generated by bottled water have been welcomed by expressions of support and by actions across the Continent and the world. Examples are The U.S. Conference of Mayors and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities urging their member municipalities to stop spending public money on bottled water, universities ending contracts for bottled water in their facilities, and upscale restaurants no longer serving bottled water to their patrons.

Novelty Waters:
Bottled water companies have responded to environmental awareness campaigns and the resulting decreasing sales with various attempts at greenwashing, such as lighter, thinner bottles, carbon offsets, etc. New companies have tried entering the still lucrative market with novel pitches, such as Tap'dNY, which sells and promotes New York City tap water.

Another such company is California based Aquamantra, which sells spring water with one of four different affirmations printed on the bottles. The company's website claims that “the thoughts inherent in those words permeate the liquid, influencing the taste and beneficial properties of the water.” The idea is based on the claim that Buddhist monks were able to change the molecular structure of water with their thoughts.

It's not our place to pass judgment on the claims themselves, or to doubt the ability of positive thoughts to affect change. But we do have an alternative suggestion. You can accomplish the same effect by affixing a printed or artfully drawn affirmation onto a glass, reusable bottle, water filter, the spout of your tap, or wherever else it will be able to work its magic on the water you drink. You also save yourself the expense of the bottled water and spare the planet the environmental destruction that bottled water entails.

New #1 PET Bottles: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly:
Aquamantra is promoting what it claims is a breakthrough in its bottles. In a recent press release the company proudly announced that in May 2009 it will introduce “the world's first 100% biodegradable-recyclable bottle.” "This is the product," says the company's founder and president Alexandra Teklak," that consumers have been waiting for. Now everyone can feel good about drinking refreshingly convenient bottled water again."

The bottles are not made from cornstarch or other bio-material, which can also have big carbon footprints. Rather they are a form of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) which the company claims can be recycled along with regular #1 PET bottles and which biodegrades both aerobically and anaerobically within 1 to 5 years, making them suitable for composting and able to degrade in landfills.

This is possible, according to the company that makes the bottles, due to a process that “expands the molecular structure of the plastic, altering the polymer chain and adding nutrients and other organic compounds which weaken the polymer and attract microbial activity.”

So is this the breakthrough that will make everyone “feel good about” buying bottled water again? The new bottles, if they live up to their billing, will make some difference in the overall profile of landfills, and perhaps marginally in their volume. But it will not alleviate the tremendous pollution to air and water caused by the manufacturing of the bottles (for all we know it may increase it) nor will it lessen the fossil fuels used to transport the products or the pollution caused by those bottles that are disposed of by incineration.

PET bottles have till now been considered the most suitable type of plastic to use for beverages, without the leaching issues that may exist with other bottles. But that assessment may change. A recent study found that PET bottles may be leaching estrogen-mimicking hormones.

And as for bottled water itself, it is still essentially a theft of a public resource for private gain, and still ultimately undermines the urgency governments feel to direct resources toward our excellent but threatened public water infrastructure.

2 comments:

susan said...

This issue touches on the preservation of our watershed areas upstate which are threatened with being paved over for development (which ends the use of land to produce food) and being fracked with the nastiest brew imaginable to extract gas from the shale.

Bottled water is the excuse to exploit our anxieties and create those who can afford water and those who drink toxic liquids.

Attend what is now happening in Mexico where industrial contamination has injured hundreds of thousands, even millions.

Preserving public water is one of the critical political issue!

Thank you David, for following this, keeping us informed, and for your humor as well.

David said...

Thank you Susan. Your comment about the relationship between bottled water and watershed issues is on target. We'll keep following these issues and posting developments.