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Better than Snake Oil

'Bottlemania' author on Perrier pushers, hydration hype, 'toilet to tap' and more.

By Reanna Alder 25 Aug 2008 |

Reanna Alder is a Vancouver writer.

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Author Elizabeth Royte: 'Water sales have dropped.'
  • Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It
  • Elizabeth Royte
  • Bloomsbury (2008)

In my Waterworld-esque post-apocalyptic fantasy, when rising oceans have submerged the continents and billions of capped, air-filled drink bottles have wiggled loose from the trash heaps of the world and gunned to the surface like bats out of hell, I plan to build an enormous raft out of Aquafina and Pepsi bottles for all my friends to live on.

Because that would be like totally upcycling.

Turns out I don't even have to wait till we're all under water: two Americans are already sailing from Los Angeles to Hawaii on a raft built with 15,000 water bottles and a Cessena 310 "to raise awareness about plastic fouling our oceans."

En route, the pair are doing surface trawls, collecting samples of the billions of tiny pieces of plastic that are turning the oceans into "plastic soup." As a recent Georgia Straight article explains, fish mistake these bits of plastic for zooplankton, and the toxins rocket up the food chain to human babies.

Awareness, it seems, still needs to be raised: despite our appetite for all things "greenish," single-use packaging remains de rigueur among large swaths of society, and bottled water in particular has become a daily accessory for many, an expected luxury wherever the relatively well-heeled are in a hurry.

Elizabeth Royte, author of Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It, wants to change all that.

Royte says our obsession with portable, single-serving water is part of "the move away from things that we use in common, toward privatization," noting that in many cities public drinking fountains are going the way of the pay phone.

The answer to the titular question is a combination of fashion and fear: the ubiquitous bottle made its way into our consciousness as a status symbol via brands like Evian and Perrier, clutched in the tabescent hands of models and celebrities, and secured its hold thanks to mounting fears about polluted water, and a marketing-induced obsession with hydration.

Bottlemania documents the toll that packaged water takes on the environment, from the plastic it's moved around in, to the fuel required to pump and transport it out of its original watershed. (Royte centres her narrative on the town of Fryeburg, Maine, where Nestlé pumps water for its Poland Spring brand.) But the greatest risk of all, Royte says, is that the more bottled water we drink, the less investment we will make in existing public water systems.

"If we continue in [this] direction," she says, "there'll be even less money and political support to protect watersheds and to invest in the infrastructure repairs that we desperately need." The rich will drink bottled water and the rest will be left with increasingly degraded tap.

Royte delves into the distinctions between spring water and purified water, and investigates the meaning of clean on both sides of the bottle-vs-tap divide. "I was surprised by how complicated both bottled water and tap water are," she says. For example, it turns out that bottled water is sometimes dirtier than tap, and the cleanest tap water in the U.S. comes from California toilets.

Elizabeth Royte spoke to The Tyee from a cabin in upstate New York (where she adds lemon slices to her tap water and refrigerates it overnight to remove the strong chlorine taste). Here's what else she had to say...

On what uncorked her interest in her subject matter

"While I was researching my last book, Garbage Land: On The Secret Trail of Trash, I developed an obsession with single-use packaging. I just saw so many empty water bottles lying around in New York City and everywhere I went, crushed in the gutters and overflowing litter baskets, and in the woods. I started wondering how it got to this point [where we are drinking] 50 billion bottles of water a year, and spending $11 billion on it."

On bottled water versus soft drinks

"I think it's great that people are drinking more water, and if bottled water sales have gone up, soft drink sales have gone down, and it's great that we're not drinking these high-calorie drinks with high-fructose corn syrup. If you've got to buy a containerized beverage, you can't wait to get where you're going and no one will give you a drink from a spigot or a tap, then sure, it's not the worst thing in the world.

"I just think people need to know what the environmental and social toll of the water is, and if their tap water is good, realize that what they're doing is redundant and harmful. It's certainly more expensive. So I hope that people will do the right thing: buy a refillable bottle, and filter their tap water if they have to."

On obsessing about her daughter becoming chronically dehydrated

"I was looking at all these bottled water ads, and their message is that we have to hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. They attribute every physical malady to under-hydration. She was having trouble with spelling and I thought, 'Maybe she's dehydrated.' If I was tired too early in the day I'd think, 'Well, maybe I'm dehydrated.' If I have a headache, 'Maybe I'm dehydrated.' It's like medical students when they read the Merck Manual and think they have all these problems."

On getting a grip

"[Now] I don't worry about it at all."

On whether water, unlike food, should be free

"I don't think that water should be free. I actually think that public water is too cheap, in the U.S. at least. We have the lowest water rates in the developed world. I don't think that utilities are making enough money to do what they have to do, to protect watersheds and improve infrastructure and use advanced treatment technologies. Rainwater falls for free, and snow melts, but it takes a lot of money to deliver the water and take care of it."

"[But] public control is essential. Bottled water companies don't answer to their customers, they answer to shareholders."

On why we're coming up short

"We have the same amount of water on the planet that we've had for the last four and a half billion years. The difference is that the population is growing, and developing countries are developing, and people there are developing a taste for meat, so they're going to be eating higher on the food chain and using more water. So per-capita consumption is going up.

"Climate change is affecting the availability of water, dry places are getting dryer and wet places are getting wetter, and it also affects the quality of water. When you have big storm events, they wash more pollutants into waterways, as we saw in the Midwest with all this agricultural runoff, and so you get much more polluted water than under a normal rainfall regime. In wetter places, the pipes gets wrecked, because we have an aging infrastructure in this country. There are water main breaks all the time. I think the statistic in the book is between 250,000 and 300,000 water main breaks a year. A lot of them happen during these intense storms. The storms overwhelm the systems and then you get more raw sewage put back into waterways, so it's just bad news all around."

On learning to love toilet-to-tap

"I've become a little more accepting of toilet-to-tap, or reclaimed water, since I wrote the book. I have an article coming out in the New York Times about the plant in Orange Country that's doing this. My fear, when I was writing the book, was of the equipment failing, or operator error.

"I might have quoted someone in the book saying that [recycled water] was 'the option of last resort.' It does seem to me that it is last resort time in Southern California. They cannot keep importing water from the Colorado River and from the northern part of the state. California uses one fifth of its energy moving water around, and that water is getting more and more expensive, and other creatures depend on that water.

"The people who run the waste water treatment plant, and many other people in the environmental community, agree that we can no longer look at waste water as something to get rid of. We have to think of it as a resource and clean it up.

"I tasted that water, and it tasted great. That's not the issue, the issue is what you don't taste, and how do you know, and who do you trust, and how much transparency is there?

"But most people I interviewed for that story believed that the system was fine. Actually the water that they make there is cleaner than the water that you're going to get in any city in the world. There are no drugs in that water, and we know that there are drugs in most big city water systems."

On whether she's optimistic about the future of water

"I think that pressure groups have been really successful at educating people. On college campuses, they've made headway getting campuses to quit selling bottled water, and I'm hearing about drinking-water fountain movements across the country. I'm working on one in New York to get more public drinking-water fountains.

"And I know that Nestlé, Coke and Pepsi, their [water] sales have dropped in the last quarter. So that makes me feel good. At the same time, whenever there's a boil-water alert, or researchers find more contaminants in water because they have better measuring equipment and can find things at lower and lower levels, people get scared.

"The economy is making me hopeful, because people are learning more about the safety of their tap water and they're learning more about the environmental consequences of bottled water and they're saying wait a minute, this is a luxury that I can no longer afford."