Think Outside the Bottle

Bottled water is the new fad. Unlike developing countries where mineral water is sometimes the only source of pure and clean water, in the West it is hyped as a fashionable lifestyle choice. So much so that the annual bottled water business is estimated to be worth US$ 11 billion in the United States alone.

This is ironic because the regulations governing the quality of public water supplies in the US are far stricter than those governing bottled-water plants. While the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates the quality of public water supplies, it has no authority over bottled water. Bottled water is considered a food product and is overseen by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which simply mandates that it be bottled in sanitary conditions.

It is true that some industrial belts of the United States have had the groundwater contaminated by irresponsible and unethical companies-- my town, for instance, is still paying for the greed of the Ford Motor Company and the DuPont Chemical Company-- but atleast I am mailed the Annual Water Quality Report with ppm (parts per million) values of regulated and unregulated substances, allowing me to make an informed decision of whether I need to filter or boil my tap water before drinking.

Bottled water, on the other hand, merely masks itself behind images of glaciers and waterfalls, and the generous abuse of words like "pure", "pristine" and "natural". After a U.S. News and World Report article revealed that Pepsi's Aquafina is actually municipal water from Wichita, Kansas, PepsiCo decided to regulate itself by adding the words "Public water source" to the label. However, Coca Cola has not been so contrite-- seven million pounds of marketing for Dasani as the pure alternative to tap water in England went down the drain when the company admitted in early 2004 that the water comes out of the London public supply. Despite this negative publicity in Europe, Dasani's advertising budget has helped establish itself as one of the top brands worldwide.

The environmental impact of bottled water cannot be overstated. Besides the fact that oil-derived polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles end up in landfills where they need hundreds of years to biodegrade, the act of transporting trucks loaded with bottles, along with costs involved in refrigeration, makes the model extremely energy inefficient. Moreover, perpetuation of the myth about the purity of bottled water is ultimately self-defeating as politicians and policy-makers might be tempted to cut the budget for municipal water filtration plants, making tap water (and bottled water) less safe.

UNICEF's Tap Project is a much-needed counter-movement to popularize the truth about tap water in developed countries, and raise money for pure water in others. It requests diners to donate $1 to the project on World Water Day (22nd March) every year, which is enough money to provide forty litres of safe drinking water. This, along with the marketing of the newly rechristened New York Tap, makes it conceivable that an informed public might just be able to kick the bottled water habit.

Water, water, everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner