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Water, water everywhere … but if you pay for it bottled, there are further costs

The rise of the bottled-water industry has been a cause of concern within many circles of environmentalists.

The rise of the bottled-water industry has been a cause of concern within many circles of environmentalists. Not only has this success resulted in the profiting of a few major corporations, but it also symbolizes a backward move toward more unsustainable practices by major corporations, spanning the social, economic and environmental realms.

The bottled-water industry has become very profitable in the past 10 years. Huge multinational companies currently make billions of dollars on water they simply extract from the ground. These include Aquafina (Pepsi), Dasani (Coke), Perrier (Nestle), Evian, and Fiji Water. What do these corporations have in common? They have all succeeded in developing wildly effective marketing campaigns, which have caused many Americans to purchase water at a price of over 2,000 times what they would normally pay for tap water.

One of the ways in which bottled water companies achieved the goal of making tap water seem obsolete was by catering to the American values of cleanliness and convenience. Convincing us that tap water was more contaminated and therefore less pure than bottled water has allowed the bottled-water companies to exploit our obsession with cleanliness. Almost all bottled water has some indication of the implied purity of the product, whether it be an image of a pristine mountain stream or simply using an appealing adjective to describe the product.

Convenience has also become one of the core values of our society. While our busy life often requires that we find ways to cut back on time spent on certain activities, it also has resulted in specific environmental consequences. Bottled water is a prime example. While it may be just as convenient to remember to fill up a water bottle before one leaves home, bottled-water corporations have marketed their product with a special emphasis on convenience. By placing bottled water in the majority of vending machines, and in virtually every grocery and convenience store, these corporations have created the illusion that bottled water is more widely available than tap water and therefore more convenient for a society always on the move.

Social, economic and environmental consequences
The resulting widespread use of bottled water has led to consequences spanning the social, economic and environmental spheres. Most environmentalists cite the exorbitant energy costs in their criticism of bottled water — a legitimate argument to make, considering that bottled water takes about 2,000 times as much energy to produce as tap water. As the water is often stored in bottles made from oil-based petroleum, about 55 percent of these surplus energy costs is derived from the production of bottled water. The remaining 50 percent is spent on the transportation of bottled water. While tap water remains local, bottled water can come from as far away as Fiji.

The impacts of bottled water also extend into the social realm. In July, the United Nations passed a resolution that recognized water as a fundamental human right. This means that now all humans have a right to clean, safe water. Once a corporation moves in to takes charge of the local water supply, water goes from being a universal right to being a commodity. When water becomes a commodity, it becomes less accessible to lower-income families.

The privatization of water also infringes upon local water rights. The pumping of large amounts of water by bottled-water companies can affect the aquifers that supply water to local communities and aquatic wildlife habitats. In Fryeburg, Maine, this conflict between local water rights and the rights of bottled-water companies is exemplified. Once Nestlé started drawing on the local water supply in the Wards Brook Aquifer, it was able to extract copious amounts of water for a low bargaining price. This was done without any economic benefits being conferred upon the local community, from which it was were taking at least 168 million gallons of water per year.

The bottled-water companies are making a huge profit by convincing us that bottled water is a superior choice over tap water. When people purchase bottled water, they are paying an astronomical amount for something they can acquire for a significantly lower price. With this knowledge, we can then pose the question: What makes bottled water, with all its environmental and social implications, better than tap water? I have provided you with the information. It is up to you to answer the question.

Clare L. Pillsbury is a junior at Macalester College in St. Paul, studying environmental studies and biology.