Losing the Bottle

Bottled water is big business. Americans chug more than 8 billion gallons of the stuff a year - and a $10 billion industry has sprung up to meet the demand. These days, consumers can choose between water sourced from Icelandic glaciers or the thawing snows of Mt. Fuji; water laced with nicotine or infused with Kabbalah energy; there’s even one brand - Woof Water - specially designed for dogs.

Inevitably, though, America’s thirst for bottled water is taking an environmental toll. According to the Earth Policy Institute, producing all those plastic bottles requires some 17 million barrels of oil a year. Factor in the energy needed to process and transport the bottles and the number rises to 50 million barrels - enough to run 3 million cars for a whole year.


Meanwhile, water itself is growing increasingly scarce, prompting some communities to question the wisdom of allowing bottling companies free rein to siphon off local supplies. Bottling plants can consume hundreds of millions of gallons of water a year, seriously impacting groundwater levels - and experts say the natural-spring sources preferred by consumers are precisely the sources most vulnerable to over-pumping.

Fortunately, local leaders are starting to take note. The US Conference of Mayors is working to regulate bottling plants and monitor the impact of discarded bottles; leaders in San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Los Angeles, and Santa Barbara have already promised to stop spending city funds on bottled water. Some lawmakers are going further still: This month, Chicago introduced a new 5-cent tax on every bottle sold, while Washington state and the city of Madison are both considering bottled-water bans.

The bottling companies have launched a two-pronged counterattack. Individual brands are seeking to clean up their image: Fiji Water recently pledged to go carbon-negative, and other companies are likely to follow suit. The trade groups representing the industry, meanwhile, are playing hardball: They’ve launched a major lobbying effort and legal campaign to try to roll back the new regulatory efforts.

For now, though, the momentum is with the reformers: Last month, the issue even reached the national stage, with Ohio Democrat Dennis Kucinich chairing House hearings on the industry’s social and environmental impact. With expert witnesses blasting bottling companies and accusing the FDA of failing to properly monitor the industry, Kucinich pledged to examine the state of local and national regulations. It could be a while before his efforts pay dividends, though - so for now, at least, I’ll be sticking with my Sigg.

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