Book of the week: Bottled and Sold

No filter: Mathew White on our readiness to swallow the hype that costs us the Earth

July 15, 2010

Mould, sodium hydroxide, kerosene, styrene, algae, yeast, tetrahydrofuran, sand, faecal coliforms, glass, sanitiser - and crickets. Yes, crickets. I look somewhat sceptically at the plastic bottle of water in front of me. The label implies purity, health and happiness, and yet, according to Peter Gleick, I shouldn't be especially surprised to find one or more of these ingredients in my own bottle.

It's an unseasonably hot day in early June. London's Oxford Street has just been closed off following a mass water fight. I'm reading Gleick's Bottled and Sold on the Paddington to Penzance train and note that each of the passengers at my table has his or her own transparent bottle of health and happiness. Two were bottled at a spring in the Peak District. One comes from the Scottish "Highlands". The fourth, imported from a French volcano, is apparently the source of Jonny Wilkinson's rugby prowess.

Each of us, for reasons of health, perceived taste or convenience, has made a seemingly inconsequential choice to buy a particular brand of bottled water. But what if we're all wrong? What if it's not necessarily the healthiest option? What if we are deluding ourselves about the taste? And what if the true cost of our convenience is considerable environmental damage affecting the health and well-being of plants, animals and people around the globe?

Issue by issue, Gleick gently debunks the pro bottled water myths we are inundated with and exposes our mass consumption of bottled water as an "act of economic, environmental and social blindness". Despite his engaging, Malcolm Gladwell-esque prose style, Gleick is more than just a journalist with an eye for a story and a knack for knitting together other people's research. In fact, he is perhaps the world's leading expert on fresh water, regularly publishing comprehensive reports on the state of the world's freshwater resources from his base at California's Pacific Institute.

The book's first six chapters focus on the myths peddled by water bottlers: that tap water is unsafe, that bottled water comes from pristine sources, and that people can taste the difference between tap and bottled water. In a recent taste test, for instance, London tap water was compared with two dozen bottled brands - and it came third. Chapter seven examines some of the environmental issues, and chapters eight and nine consider specific marketing strategies. The book is worth picking up for the section on bottled "holy water" alone. Chapter nine tackles the industry's somewhat paradoxical attempt to reposition itself as ethical, and the final chapter looks at how we may be drinking water in the future.

I particularly enjoyed learning more about where the water in our bottles actually comes from. I thought Peckham Spring - Del Boy's ruse to bottle and sell the tap water from his London flat in the TV programme Only Fools and Horses - was just comedy. The real laugh is that the Dasani (Coca-Cola), Aquafina (PepsiCo) and Pure Life (Nestle) brands, to name a few, are discreetly labelled in the US with the initials PWS - in other words, public water supply. Exactly which tap depends on where the bottling plant is located. And beware of brand names redolent of glaciers or the Arctic. In many cases, you should be replacing mental images of pristine icicles dripping 1,000-year-old water into your bottle with suburban reservoirs and underground pipes.

Gleick also reminds us that the development of public water systems was perhaps our greatest-ever breakthrough in public health. John Snow's observations on cholera outbreaks in Victorian London, for instance, led directly to interventions to restrict contaminated supplies and improve the quality of municipal supplies. Thousands if not millions of lives were saved as a consequence. When viewed through Gleick's eyes, deliberate attempts to undermine our trust in these systems by bottled water companies are nothing short of scandalous.

Nevertheless, when Gleick talks about "our obsession with bottled water", it's clear that he has an American audience in mind. Most of his more crass examples of contamination, regulatory failures, labelling tricks, environmental degradation and marketing shams are from the US. Moreover, he frequently compares the system in the US to a better one in Europe. Ultimately, however, we can derive little real pride from this comparison. We too consume vast quantities of water that is neither healthier nor tastier than the water that comes out of our taps. And as for office water coolers, take a look at the number inside the little triangle of arrows on these oversized bottles, which refers to the type of plastic used. Most likely it will indicate that the bottle is made from polycarbonate - tougher than the polyethylene terephthalate used for standard bottles, but also more likely to leach harmful contaminants.

Apparently, any warm glow we may get from recycling our little plastic bottles is also misplaced. Making the initial bottle, we are told, uses about 4 litres of additional water, and then there is the energy needed to produce the plastic, filter the water, fill the bottles, chill them and, crucially, transport them. Water is heavy and its carbon footprint is large. In fact, according to Gleick's calculations, the full energy cost of a single bottle of water is about 1,000 times that of the same amount of water delivered to the tap. When we also factor in the energy costs of shipping used bottles to a recycler and their subsequent reprocessing, we should be glowing more from embarrassment than pride when we pop the used bottle in the "green" bin.

Despite these observations, and given Gleick's environmental credentials and those of Island Press, a nonprofit pro-environmental publisher, I was disappointed to see little discussion of the environmental impact of non-recycled bottles. The author knows better than most that they are a major constituent of the "plastic soup" forming in our seas, and I would have liked to learn more about this side-effect of our bottled-water obsession. Of course, it may be that the omission is deliberate. Gleick is a scientist first and foremost, so perhaps he didn't want to be seen as too evangelical.

He also skirts around the more political issues of extracting and bottling water in arid locations and shipping it to wetter, richer ones. Again, he is an expert in these issues, so the omission must be intentional. Indeed, the problems of water scarcity and its geopolitical implications are well documented elsewhere, as in Steve Solomon's Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization (2010). By only briefly touching on these broader implications, the book remains focused on the main issue, the fallacy that bottled water is the healthy alternative, and it remains, at just over 200 pages of text, a fairly light and entertaining read.

Perhaps the book's main message is that the water provided through our public systems is, in the majority of cases, just as good as, if not identical to, the water we pay hundreds of times more for just because it comes in handy plastic bottles. The real scandal is the lack of access to this water in public places. Encouragingly, the rebranding of public fountains as "hydration stations" seems to be taking off, so let's hope that London's mayor, Boris Johnson, makes good his promise to fill the capital's parks with them and that other councils follow suit. Unless we start getting smarter with our use of this essential resource, the water conflicts that bring Oxford Street to a standstill in the future may be of a far more serious nature.


Peter H. Gleick is co-founder and president of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security in Oakland, California. He began his academic career at the University of California, Berkeley as a research and teaching associate, taking a two-year break (1980-82) to serve as deputy assistant on energy and environment to Jerry Brown, the Governor of California at the time.

He is a passionate campaigner against climate change denial, and writes on his blog: "Climate change deniers are pushing an ideological fight masquerading as a scientific debate" and asserts "those who deny that humans are causing unprecedented climate change have never, ever produced an alternative scientific argument that comes close to explaining the evidence we see around the world that the climate is changing".

Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water

By Peter H. Gleick

Island Press, 232pp, £19.99

ISBN 9781597265287

Published 1 June 2010

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