Two weeks ago, the Macalester College Sustainability Book Club met over sandwiches and tap water to discuss Elizabeth Royte’s latest book, “Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It.”
In “Bottlemania,” Royte — a veteran environmental writer who previously authored “Garbage Land” and “The Tapir’s Morning Bath” — probes the global bottled-water phenomenon, comparing tap water and bottled water to find out what those clear plastic bottles ultimately cost us.
An investigative journalist by trade, Royte visited the massive aqueducts of New York City (one of the most extensive municipal water systems in the world), struggling rural villages in Maine, and high-tech treatment plants in Missouri in her quest to learn the cultural, economic and ecological implications of water privatization.
A combination of first-person observation and detailed research, “Bottlemania” explores the history of drinking water and examines the ethics of turning an essential resource into a private commodity.
Macalester’s mission: go green
Around the Macalester campus, “environmental sustainability” is popular policyspeak — the college even gives Sustainability Tours of campus and puts out a Sustainable Scots newsletter.
Macalester’s first major move to go green was installing a 10kw wind turbine near the athletic fields in 2003.
According to students, the impractical urban turbine is more conversation piece than energy source — it’s been broken for more than a year now and there are no plans to have it repaired.
Even when fully functioning, the electricity generated by the turbine meets a negligible .01 percent of the college’s energy needs. (See Diego Ruiz’s article “Mac’s wind turbine generates more hype than energy” in The Mac Weekly.)
In 2008, the college formed a Sustainability Office, with goals that include carbon neutrality by 2025 and zero waste by 2020.
The most recent — and visible — effort to reduce Macalester’s carbon footprint is Markim Hall, the home of the Institute for Global Citizenship and a model of sustainable design and construction.
Built using recycled materials and stones quarried locally, Markim Hall is the first higher education building in Minnesota to earn platinum certification under the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED program. The structure uses 75 percent less energy and 45 percent less water than would be typical in Minnesota’s climate.
A book club to raise awareness
Sustainability projects at Macalester aim to reduce material waste, energy use and water use — the Sustainability Book Club is no exception.
Club facilitator Suzanne Hansen is manager of the Sustainability Office; she created the book club in 2009 — along with Dave Collins and Jacki Betsworth at the DeWitt Wallace Library — as a way to promote discussion of sustainability on campus.
The book club’s first selection was Sharon Astyk’s “Depletion and Abundance,” followed by Thomas L. Friedman’s “Hot, Flat and Crowded” and Barbara Kingsolver’s“Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.”
The group reads each book with an eye toward enhancing environmentally-beneficial teaching, research and action at the college.
The impetus for reading “Bottlemania” came from student Clare Pillsbury, a Sustainability Office employee who recently proposed a campus-wide ban on bottled water.
“I’ve been talking with a lot of departments to figure out how to fulfill their water needs without using bottled water,” said Pillsbury, who led the book club’s discussion.
So far, her victories include reusable water bottle give-aways for freshmen, spigots for reusable water bottles on drinking fountains to encourage consumption of tap water and documentary screenings about bottled water.
Delusion in a bottle
After reading “Bottlemania, book club members said they were shocked by how little they really knew about bottled water, by how many assumptions the average American makes regarding water purity.
According to Royte, Americans have bought into the fantasy that bottled water originates from pure mountain springs when, in fact, most brands — including Pepsi’s Aquafina and Coke’s Dasani — are merely processed municipal water.
Royte points out there are more government regulations on tap water than on bottled water — bottled water can legally contain contaminants that tap water cannot.
Furthermore, brands that do draw their water from springs harm natural ecosystems by draining water tables.
Much of the book chronicles the recent “water wars” in Fryeburg, Maine, where Nestlé-owned Poland Springs has been extracting water from the Fryeberg aquifer and skewing pond ecosystems.
“I was surprised at the underregulation of pumping water from aquifers,” said book club member Brianna Besch.
Also distressing are Royte’s statistics regarding the environmental impact of discarded plastic bottles, the carbon footprint of water shipped long distances and health risks posed by the leaching of plastic compounds from petroleum-laden bottles.
Royte is simply mystified by the immense popularity of bottled water in the U.S. — and the ignorance that often accompanies the consumption.
“The outrageous success of bottled water, in a country where more than 89 percent of tap water meets or exceeds federal health and safety regulations, regularly wins in blind taste tests against name-brand waters, and costs 240 to 10,000 times less than bottled water, is an unparalleled social phenomenon,” she writes.
Hard to swallow
Although Royte slams bottled water, she admits that the alternative tap water is not always pure and healthy either — though 92 percent of the nation’s 53,000 local water systems meet or exceed federal safety standards.
“After reading this book, I’m afraid to drink anything!” said club leader Suzanne Hansen, holding up her compostable cup of tap water.
If bottling water wreaks havok on the environment, and both bottled and ground water can potentially be harmful to people’s health, what should Americans drink?
Royte’s unappetizing solution: purified sewage, or “water reclamation.”
“[Water reclamation] reduces pressure on freshwater supplies for nonpotable uses, such as watering golf courses and crops,” explains Royte.
An added advantage: water reclamation “enforces extreme cleanups of an end product that is dumped, significantly dirtier, into waterways others drink from.”
“As bad as toilet-to-tap sounds,” Royte reminds us, “all water is recycled.”
As the Sustainability Book Club wrapped up their discussion, all agreed they’d gained valuable — and troubling — insight into the battle erupting over drinking America’s water.
Macalester’s Sustainability Book Club is open to faculty, staff, students, alums and neighbors. To join, contact Suzanne Hansen at shansen2 [at] maclester [dot] edu.
Oliver St. John, a student at Macalester College, is a Higher Education Consortium for Urban Affairs (HECUA) intern at MinnPost.