Richard K. Lodge: The great bottled water scam
Am I the only person who ever looked at a bottle of water before this year and figured out what "Source: PWS" meant?
There is a growing controversy in recent weeks about the wide-scale marketing of bottled water and the issues that spill over - if you'll pardon the pun - from that marketing. The world is awash in cast-off plastic water bottles, most of which are sold in states that don't require deposits on them and many of which find their way into landfills or roadside ditches instead of recycling bins.
Each day, something like 60 million plastic bottles are thrown away, and most of them aren't recycled. Americans guzzle millions of gallons of bottled water every day, plunking down anywhere from 50 cents to well over a buck a bottle, in most cases. A "water bar" opened recently in New York City (where else?), where the glitterati can spend ridiculous amounts on flavored water.
Water in plastic bottles is essential for life in many African countries and elsewhere, where clean public water sources are rare and bacteria and toxins are rampant. But in the U.S. and much of the industrialized world, clean water is as close as the kitchen tap.
Now, with environmentalists ganging up on the bottled water industry over the glut of plastic bottles and deception in marketing tactics, the water bottlers tried firing back this week. The International Bottled Water Association bought a series of full-page newspaper ads, trying to convince consumers that bottled water is convenient and healthy - and that the industry promotes recycling, to reclaim some of that plastic, which is made using petroleum.
The absurdity of this battle was summarized in the quote from Joseph Doss, the president and CEO of the Bottled Water Association, who said, "Our main point is that bottled water is a safe, healthy, convenient beverage that consumers find refreshing."
Uh, yeh, but it's just water, right? And "consumers" have been drinking it from their taps for a lot longer than it has come in a bottle. That dawned on me years ago when I bought a bottle of Aquafina, looked at the back of the label, and saw that the source of the contents was "PWS, Town of Ayer." It occurred to me that the "safe, healthy, convenient beverage" as described by Joe Doss was from Ayer's public water system. Tap water. I had just paid a buck for tap water from Ayer, filtered and bottled by Pepsi - owner of Aquafina - at a plant in the town of Ayer.
Aquafina and other bottled waters that come from the tap have started spelling out the "PWS" part of the label, a fact which the spring water bottlers are happy about. After all, spring water doesn't come from a tap, it come out of the ground. But spring water is still water, right?
Somewhere in the past decade or two, Americans started paying for bottles of water. Maybe it was a really hot, humid day, and those bottles of Coke and Sprite and fruit juice in the cooler at the convenience store just didn't look refreshing enough. But a cold plastic bottle of water - now that would be worth paying for. And that is what we did, apparently never thinking about how ridiculous it would be to actually pay someone serious money for the same liquid that we could get out of our own taps at home or at work.
The marketing helped convince us that Perrier, in its tapered green glass bottle, was classy, something to be ordered with a twist of lime, and that Poland Spring and Belmont Springs water had that special, clean feeling about it. Dasani, with its exotic name, captured a decent share of this growing market, even as Coca-Cola filled plastic bottles with tap water under the Dasani label.
Whether from a spring at the base of a mountain in Maine, or from a "PWS" under an exotic label, we became convinced bottled water tasted better than our tap water, that it was "healthy" and better for us. We believed that water in a sealed container - and a price tag - was better, tastier, classier, easier.
Sure, our kids carried their own refillable water bottles to soccer practice, but some of us paid the bottled water distributor to come every week to our homes or offices with gargantuan spring water bottles for the water dispenser.
But now, in some corners, there's been an epiphany. Bottled water is a waste of resources in manufacturing and a waste of money by the consumer. We bought the marketing message that a cool plastic bottle of water - drawn from the taps of a public water system or pulled from a spring - is worth paying 50 or 100 times the actual cost of the water, which is pennies.
This isn't meant to be a holier-than-thou piece, since I do occasionally buy a bottle of water when a store cooler is more convenient than a drinking fountain or the kitchen tap. But I use and re-use that plastic bottle dozens of times, refilling it from the tap or from the dispenser in the cafeteria of the Daily News, where MWRA water flows in, through a filter, and into my water bottle.
Bottled water isn't evil and the companies that sell it aren't demons. We, as consumers, make the choices whether to buy or not. This latest debate about the wastefulness of how we consume bottled water - and what happens to all the bottles - should lead to less consumption and more consideration before we make that purchase.
If we use our heads, consider our wallets and the environment, the glass can still be half-full, with water from the tap.
Richard Lodge is editor of the Daily News and writes a column published on Friday. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org