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

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

by Peter H. Gleick


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Peter Gleick knows water. A world-renowned scientist and freshwater expert, Gleick is a MacArthur Foundation "genius," and according to the BBC, an environmental visionary. And he drinks from the tap. Why don’t the rest of us?
Bottled and Sold shows how water went from being a free natural resource to one of the most successful commercial products of the last one hundred years—and why we are poorer for it. It’s a big story and water is big business. Every second of every day in the United States, a thousand people buy a plastic bottle of water, and every second of every day a thousand more throw one of those bottles away. That adds up to more than thirty billion bottles a year and tens of billions of dollars of sales.
Are there legitimate reasons to buy all those bottles? With a scientist’s eye and a natural storyteller’s wit, Gleick investigates whether industry claims about the relative safety, convenience, and taste of bottled versus tap hold water. And he exposes the true reasons we’ve turned to the bottle, from fearmongering by business interests and our own vanity to the breakdown of public systems and global inequities.
"Designer" H2O may be laughable, but the debate over commodifying water is deadly serious. It comes down to society’s choices about human rights, the role of government and free markets, the importance of being "green," and fundamental values. Gleick gets to the heart of the bottled water craze, exploring what it means for us to bottle and sell our most basic necessity.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781597265287
Publisher: Island Press
Publication date: 05/03/2010
Edition description: 1
Pages: 232
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Peter H. Gleick is President of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security in Oakland, California, and is a recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship for his work on water issues.

Read an Excerpt

Bottled and Sold

The Story Behind Our Obsession With Bottled Water

By Peter H. Gleick


Copyright © 2010 Peter H. Gleick
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61091-162-7


The War on Tap Water

Tap water is poison. —A flyer touting the stock of a Texas bottled water company.

When we're done, tap water will be relegated to showers and washing dishes. —Susan Wellington, president of the Quaker Oats Company's United States beverage division.

September 15, 2007, was a big day for the alumni, family, and fans of the University of Central Florida and the UCF Knights football team. After years of waiting and hoping, the University of Central Florida had finally built their own football stadium—the new Bright House Networks arena. Under clear skies, and with temperatures nearing 100 degrees, a sell-out crowd of 45,622 was on hand to watch the first-ever real UCF home game against the Texas Long-horns, a national powerhouse. "I never thought we'd see this, but we sure are proud to have a stadium on campus," said UCF alumnus and Knight fan Tim Ball as he and his family tailgated in the parking lot before the game. And in an exciting, three-hour back-and-forth contest, the UCF Knights almost pulled off an upset before losing in the final minutes 35 to 32.

Knight supporters were thrilled and left thirsting for more—literally. Fans found out the hard way that their new $54-million stadium had been built without a single drinking water fountain. And for "security" reasons, no one could bring water into the stadium. The only water available for overheated fans was $3 bottled water from the concessionaires or water from the bathroom taps, and long before the end of the game, the concessionaires had run out of bottled water. Eighteen people were taken to local hospitals and sixty more were treated by campus medical personnel for heat-related illnesses. The 2004 Florida building code, in effect in 2005 when the UCF Board of Trustees approved the stadium design, mandated that stadiums and other public arenas have a water fountain for every 1,000 seats, or half that number if "bottled water dispensers" are available. Under these requirements, the arena should have been built with at least twenty water fountains. Furthermore, a spokesman for the International Code Council in Washington, which developed Florida's building code, said, "Selling bottled water out of a concession stand is not what the code meant."

The initial reaction from the University was swift and remarkably unapologetic: UCF spokesman Grant Heston appeared on the local TV news to argue that the codes in place when the stadium was designed didn't require fountains. A few days after the game, as news of the hospitalizations was reverberating, University President John Hitt said, "We will look at adding the water fountains, but I have to say to you I don't think that's the answer to this problem. We could have had 50 water fountains and still had a problem on Saturday." Al Harms, UCF's vice president for strategic planning and the coordinator for the operations of the stadium, told the Orlando Sentinel, "We won't make a snap decision" about installing fountains in the new stadium. Harms did promise that they would triple the amount of bottled water available for sale, and give away one free bottle per person at the next game. Harms also said, apparently without a trace of sarcasm, "It's our way of saying we're sorry."

For some UCF students, this wasn't enough. One of them, Nathaniel Dorn, mobilized in twenty-first-century fashion. He created a Facebook group, Knights for Free Water, which quickly attracted nearly 700 members. He and several other students showed up at a packed school hearing, talked to local TV and print media, and ridiculed the school's offer of a free bottle of water. Under this glare of attention the University did an abrupt about-face and announced that ten fountains would be installed by the next game and fifty would be installed permanently.

All of a sudden public water fountains have vanished and bottled water is everywhere: in every convenience store, beverage cooler, and vending machine. In student backpacks, airplane beverage carts, and all of my hotel rooms. At every conference and meeting I go to. On restaurant menus and school lunch counters. In early 2007, as I waited for a meeting in Silicon Valley, I watched a steady stream of young employees pass by on their way to or from buildings on the Google campus. Nearly all were carrying two items: a laptop and a throw-away plastic bottle of water. When I entered the lobby and checked in at reception, I was told to help myself to something to drink from an open cooler containing fruit juices and rows of commercial bottled water. As I walked to my meeting, I passed cases of bottled water being unloaded near the cafeteria.

Water fountains used to be everywhere, but they have slowly disappeared as public water is increasingly pushed out in favor of private control and profit. Water fountains have become an anachronism, or even a liability, a symbol of the days when homes didn't have taps and bottled water wasn't available from every convenience store and corner concession stand. In our health-conscious society, we're afraid that public fountains, and our tap water in general, are sources of contamination and contagion. It used to be the exact opposite—in the 1800s, when our cities lacked widespread access to safe water, there were major movements to build free public water fountains throughout America and Europe.

In London in the mid-1800s, water was beginning to be piped directly into the homes of the city's wealthier inhabitants. The poor, however, relied on private water vendors and neighborhood wells that were often broken or tainted by contamination and disease, like the famous Broad Street pump that spread cholera throughout its neighborhood. At the time of London's Great Exhibition in 1851, conceived to showcase the triumphs of British technology, science, and innovation, Punch Magazine wrote: "Whoever can produce in London a glass of water fit to drink will contribute the best and most universally useful article in the whole exhibition." Just three years after the Exhibition, thousands of Londoners would die in the third massive cholera outbreak to hit the city since 1800.

By the middle of the twentieth century, spectacular efforts to improve water-quality treatment and major investments in modern drinking-water systems had almost completely eliminated the risks of unsafe water. Those of us who have the good fortune to live in the industrialized world now take safe drinking water entirely for granted. We turn on a faucet and out comes safe, often free fresh water. Notwithstanding the UCF stadium fiasco, we're rarely more than a few feet from potable water no matter where we are. But those efforts and investments are in danger of being wasted, and the public benefit of safe tap water lost, in favor of private gain in the form of little plastic water bottles.

The growth of the bottled water industry is a story about twenty-first-century controversies and contradictions: poverty versus glitterati; perception versus reality; private gain versus public loss. Today people visit luxury water "bars" stocked with bottles of water shipped in from every corner of the world. Water "sommeliers" at fancy restaurants push premium bottled water to satisfy demand and boost profits. Airport travelers have no choice but to buy bottled water at exorbitant prices because their own personal water is considered a security risk. Celebrities tout their current favorite brands of bottled water to fans. People with too much money and too little sense pay $50 or more for plain water in a fancy glass bottle covered in fake gems, or for "premium" water supposedly bottled in some exotic place or treated with some magical process.

In its modern form, bottled water is a new phenomenon, growing from a niche mineral-water product with a few wealthy customers to a global commodity found almost everywhere. The recent expansion of bottled water sales has been extraordinary. In the late 1970s, around 350 million gallons of bottled water were sold in the United States—almost entirely sparkling mineral water and large bottles to supply office water coolers—or little more than a gallon and a half per person per year. As the figure below shows, between 1976 and 2008, sales of bottled water in the United States doubled, doubled again, doubled again, and then doubledagain. In 2008, nearly 9 billion gallons (over 34 billion liters) of bottled water were packaged and sold in the United States and five times this amount was sold around the world, feeding a global business of water providers, bottlers, truckers, and retailers at a cost to consumers of over a hundred billion dollars.

Americans now drink more bottled water than milk or beer—in fact, the average American is now drinking around 30 gallons, or 115 liters, of bottled water each year, most of it from single-serving plastic containers. Bottled water has become so ubiquitous that it's hard to remember that it hasn't always been here. As I write this sentence I'm sitting in the café in the basement of the capitol building in Sacramento, California, and all I have to do is lift my eyes from my computer screen—right in front of me are vending machines selling both Dasani and Aquafina. Yet, like UCF football fans, I can't tell you where the nearest water fountain is.

Millions of Americans still drink tap water at home and in restaurants. But there is a war on for the hearts, minds, and pocket-books of tap water drinkers, a huge market that water bottlers cannot afford to ignore. The war on the tap is an undeclared war, for the most part, but in recent years, more and more subtle (and not so subtle) campaigns that play up the supposed health risks of tap water, or the supposed health advantages of bottled water, have been launched by private water bottlers.

How do you convince consumers to buy something that is essentially the same as a far cheaper and more easily accessible alternative? You promote perceived advantages of your product, and you emphasize the flaws in your competitor's product. For water bottlers this means selling safety, style, and convenience, and playing on consumer's fears. Fear is an effective tool. Especially fear of sickness and of invisible contamination. If we can be made to fear our tap water, the market for bottled water skyrockets.

I guess I shouldn't have been surprised, therefore, when I opened my mailbox and found a flyer with a cover image of a goldfish swimming in a glass of drinking water. "There is something in this glass you do not want to drink. And it's not the fish," shouted the bold and colorful text in the mailer, offering me home delivery of bottles of Calistoga Mountain Spring Water. "How can you be sure your water is safe? Take a closer look at the water in our glass. Can you tell if it's pure? Unfortunately, you can't." And the solution offered? The "Path to Purity" lies with bottles of water, delivered to your door by truck, under a monthly contract.

"Tap water is poison!" declares another flyer my neighbor Roy received in the mail in early 2007 touting the stock of Royal Spring Water Inc., a Texas bottled water company. "Americans no longer trust their tap water.... Clearly, people are more worried than ever about what comes out of their taps." Roy, a thoughtful guy, told me he was actually more worried about what came out of his mailbox than his tap. The website of another bottler says, "Tap water can be inconsistent.... The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has reported that hundreds of tap water sources have failed to meet minimum standards."

These attacks could be dismissed as the inappropriate actions of a few small players, except that some of the world's biggest bottlers have also targeted tap water. In 2000, shortly before he was made chairman of Pepsi Co's North American Beverage and Food division, Robert S. Morrison publicly declared, "The biggest enemy is tap water.... We're not against water—it just has its place. We think it's good for irrigation and cooking." That same year, Susan Wellington, president of the Quaker Oats Company's United States beverage division, candidly told industry analysts, "When we're done, tap water will be relegated to showers and washing dishes." "We need to change the way we sell water," said industry analyst Kathleen Ransome at the 2006 International Bottled Water Association annual convention in Las Vegas. "At what point will consumers turn to the tap?"

Subtler advertising approaches also play on our fears. Pepsi Co hired actress Lisa Kudrow to promote Aquafina with the phrase "So pure, we promise nothing" in a campaign Brandweek magazine jokingly called the "Nothing" campaign. Kinley in India offers "Trust in every drop," while another Indian bottler, Bisleri, advertises "Bisleri. Play safe."

Officially, the large bottled water industry associations advise their members to refrain from attacks on tap water. Some bottled water companies have signed up to the International Bottled Water Association's voluntary code of advertising, "which encourages members not to disparage tap water." Alas, as Captain Barbossa notes in the popular movie Pirates of the Caribbean, "the code is more what you'd call 'guidelines' than actual rules," and even the bottled water associations cannot resist making critical comments about tap water. "The difference between bottled water and tap water is that bottled water's quality is consistent," said Stephen Kay, IBWA spokesman in May 2001, implying, of course, that tap water quality isn't and thus worse. In 2002, Kay said, "Some people in their municipal markets have the luxury of good water. Others do not." Similarly, the website of the Australasian Bottled Water Association pokes barbs at tap water, saying, "Some people also wish to avoid certain chemicals used in the treatment of public water supplies, such as chlorine and fluoride, and are therefore turning to the chemical-free alternative."

In the fall of 2007 I attended the IBWA annual convention in Las Vegas. Las Vegas is a pretty incongruous place to hold a bottled water convention. Planted in the heart of one of the driest regions in the United States, it has very limited access to water. Yet the IBWA's major social event is a golf tournament played on water-intensive grass that consumes precious, limited water. The bottled water convention itself is a cross between a pep rally, a political campaign meeting, and a how-to seminar for individuals hoping to cash in on the bottled water craze. I wandered from session to session, from discussions of marketing strategies to closed-door meetings on how to deal with new regulatory efforts by federal agencies. I listened to talks on how to counter the efforts of anti-bottled water activists and watched demonstrations of the latest machines for bottling water. The culmination of the convention was the keynote presentation of Fred Smith, president of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which promotes a libertarian, free-market agenda. Smith extolled the virtues of a world where business entrepreneurs could make money selling water in bottles. The problem, Smith told me afterward, without a hint of irony, was that water "suffers most from being treated as a common property resource." Smith believes that "water policy could benefit greatly from exploring the strategies that have been used to produce oil."

It is this belief that water is fundamentally no different than oil or any other private commodity that lies at the heart of the controversy over selling water. A few months after the IBWA convention, Smith's Competitive Enterprise Institute launched a special project called "Enjoy Bottled Water" in which they criticize the safety of tap water, ridicule opponents of bottled water, and promote the industry's merits. "Bottled water is substantially different from tap water," the CEI website declares. "When compared to bottled water, risks appear to be somewhat higher for tap water.... Available data indicates that bottled water has a better safety record." The CEI is so ideologically anti-regulation that the site says, "The fact that anyone would want to ban or regulate a healthy and safe option like bottled water is really absurd." It may come as no surprise to note that Coca-Cola, maker of Dasani bottled water, was the largest single supporter of CEI's annual fundraising dinner in 2008.

The campaign against municipal tap water has been more than just words. In 2001, documents found on a Coca-Cola company website revealed that it had a formal program to actively discourage restaurant customers from drinking tap water. Working with the Olive Garden restaurant chain, Coca-Cola developed a six-step program to help the restaurant reduce what they call "tap water incidence"—the unprofitable problem of customers drinking tap water rather than ordering revenue-producing beverages. "Some 20 percent of consumers drink tap water exclusively in Casual Dining restaurants," the program lamented. "This trend significantly cuts into retailer profits.... Research was conducted to better understand why tap water consumption is so prevalent and why consumers are making this beverage choice.... This research provides the valuable insight and understanding needed to convert water drinkers to profit-producing beverages."

These documents, very quickly pulled from official websites when the media picked up the story, had already been downloaded and reposted elsewhere. "This is awesome," commented one reader. "It's what corporations say to each other behind customers' backs, only it happens to be on the Web where mortals can see it."


Excerpted from Bottled and Sold by Peter H. Gleick. Copyright © 2010 Peter H. Gleick. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Chapter 1. The War on Tap Water,
Chapter 2. Fear of the Tap,
Chapter 3. Selling Unwholesome Provisions,
Chapter 4. If It's Called "Arctic Spring," Why Is It from Florida?,
Chapter 5. The Cachet of Spring Water,
Chapter 6. The Taste of Water,
Chapter 7. The Hidden Cost of Convenience,
Chapter 8. Selling Bottled Water: The Modern Medicine Show,
Chapter 9. Drinking Bottled Water: Sin or Salvation?,
Chapter 10. Revolt: The Growing Campaign Against Bottled Water,
Chapter 11. Green Water? The Effort to Produce Ethical Bottled Water,
Chapter 12. The Future of Water,

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Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
lahochstetler on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a book about the implications of the mass consumption of bottled water. Touching on the most well-known problem created by bottled water, millions of plastic bottles left in landfills, as well as more subtle issues, Gleick provides a comprehensive look at the environmental and social effects of bottled water. And those effects are staggering. Bottled water creates environmental issues not only in landfills, but also in communities where water is sourced. To be labeled "spring water" water must be sourced from underground aquifers, which are depleted far more quickly than their ability to self-replenish. Communities with bottling plants have found their water resources diminishing at an alarming rate. Media and marketing play significant roles in creating the public frenzy for bottled water. The marketing of mainstream bottled water regularly suggests that it is better-tasting, purer, and safer than tap water. As Gleick proves, however, these claims are specious, at best. Blind taste tests have shown that many people do not prefer the taste of bottled water. Most interesting to me was the difference in safety standards applied to bottled and tap water. Tap water is regulated by the EPA, and must be tested multiple times daily. Any problem must be reported within hours. Bottled water is regulated by the FDA, and is required to be tested far less frequently, once monthly at best in many cases. Marketing issues are not restricted to claims of safety and purity. Gleick's research also highlights the growth of a snake-oil like water hucksters who claim their bottled water has magical or healing properties. Some bottled waters claim to have realigned their molecules to create curative powers, or they claim to have spiritual powers, most famously the Kabbalah water favored by Madonna, among others. Minimal regulation allows these bottlers to make various unsubstantiated claims, and extort monies from willing believers. Most troubling to Gleick is the fact that the increasing privitization of water may make potable water a luxury, rather than a necessity. If municipal water systems are ignored in favor of bottled water, the most vulnerable populations will be left without water resources. This is the problem Gleick most wants to stop. He is not advocating a complete ban on bottled water, but he is calling for tighter regulation, and more transparency on the effects of the bottled water industry. One might think that a book on bottled water would not be interesting, but this was a highly readable book, decidedly engaging for anyone with an interest in social or environmental issues. Glecik's book is well-researched. This is a man who certainly knows his water. I can certainly recommend this book to other concerned readers.
booksandwine on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Bottled water is seductive. We drink it thinking it's healthier and better for us than the water that comes out of our sinks. When we are done with the bottles, they typically go into landfills. Reading Bottled And Sold by Peter H Gleick has further opened my eyes to this 'scam.' As basically the manufacturers of this product put out ads about how it's so much more healthy than tap water, it'll make you lose weight, and in some instances will cleanse the soul of the sinner, via blessed holy water which is also sold for profit.Bottled And Sold is a non-fiction book about, obviously, the selling of water. It goes into depth on the environmental impact of consuming bottled water. I should probably confess right now that I used to drink bottled water until I decided it was ludicrous for me to spend over a dollar per bottle on something I could get from the tap for free. Call me cheap. Call me environmental. I prefer to think of it this way, each dollar I save by drinking tap water could go towards a new book.Gleick explores the difference between tap and bottled water, and describes blind taste tests conducted. These tests basically found that there was no true difference in taste that people were able to detect. Other tests conducted found tap water to be more regulated and safer than bottled water - as proven by a Cleveland test of, I think, Evian water.I think if you are interested in the green movement, or preserving the Earth, then this is something you should read. It is not dense nor is it full of unreadable mumbo-jumbo jargon. It talks about how basically if you buy bottled water sold separately at the gas station, you wind up paying around 5$ per gallon, more money than you pump into your car per gallon. I thought that particular statistic was crazy, and sort of confirms my new book/tap water stance.And I do love it when my stances are confirmed.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book tells the hidden tale of how bottled water is neither cleaner nor greener than tap water and efforts to say otherwise are scams- a great contradiction to what mass media tells us. Some of the ideas, like bottling companies are knowingly drying up aquifers which kills local plants and animals and have no intention to reverse the damage seems far-fetched. Yet, detailed documentation of sources reveals this book is no joke. A must read.
libs_lib More than 1 year ago
Note: Free review copy received from NetGalley. Gleick raises some excellent questions about the safety and sustainability of relying on bottled water over tap water. However, the main focus of the book seems to be on the advertising done by bottled water companies and how outlandish the claims are. Much of this information filters its way into other chapters and does become a bit hammer-over-the-head repetitive. The chapters on the overall environmental cost of producing bottled water were far more informative, but could have benefited from an overall breakdown. The historical analysis about where our fear of tap water comes from, the creation and regulation of tap water, and it's current problems was excellent and could have been expanded on as it was one of the more interesting topics covered. I think many people could benefit by reading this book, even just portions of it. I imagine anyone who reads the chapter about contaminants found in bottled water will gladly switch to tap, even if they're still present at least you're not paying a premium price to poison yourself. The reviewer is the author of the blog A Librarian's Life in Books.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
"The P.R. execs and charlatans who hawk bottled water don't want us asking a fundamental question: Will we abandon our commitment to providing safe public tap water? Peter Gleick takes the issue head on. He brilliantly captures the environmental, economic, and moral dimensions of the bottled water controversy in an exploration that is authoritative yet entertaining, alarming yet optimistic." (Robert Glennon author of Unquenchable ) "This is my favorite kind of book: packed with facts but such a pleasure to read. Peter Gleick has skillfully navigated the complex landscape of bottled water, covering everything from neglected municipal systems to bogus advertisers to piles of plastic waste. Congratulations to Gleick for tackling a problem of gigantic proportions and especially for charting a viable positive way forward." (Annie Leonard author of The Story of Stuff ) "We ended the sale of bottled water in 2007 at Chez Panisse as its environmental implications became clear. After reading Peter H. Gleick's startling investigation of the lucrative and unsustainable bottled water industry, I am confident we made the right decision. Water is our most primary element. It is precious and its access should be a democratic right. Bottled and Sold is a carefully researched, clear-eyed look at an industry that too often escapes the public glare." (Alice Waters chef, author, and proprietor of Chez Panisse ) "In Bottled and Sold, Peter Gleick shows that most communities serve up better tap water than the bottled stuff. Besides, all those bottles are filling up our landfills. If you want to know the full costs of this industry -- from environmental to health and economic -- this fascinating expose is the best place to begin." (Donald Kennedy, Editor of Science magazine 2000-2008; former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner.