Q&A: Peter Gleick Weighs in on the Bottled Water Battle

Why do people buy billions of gallons of expensive bottled water in the U.S., a country where most of the tap water is cheap and extremely high quality? In his new book Bottled and Sold, international water expert Peter Gleick looks for answers in the bigger questions about why we buy bottled water, and defines alternatives for the future.

Bottled Water Battle

“Bottled and Sold” available online at Amazon.com

By Circle of Blue

Welcome to Circle of Blue Radio’s Series 5 in 15, where we’re asking global thought leaders five questions in 15 minutes, more or less. These are experts working in journalism, science, communication design, and water. I’m J. Carl Ganter. Today’s program is underwritten by Traverse Internet Law, tech savvy lawyers, representing internet and technology companies.

There’s a war going on over what kind of water you drink–bottling companies have waged a campaign against tap water and it’s paying off, according to Pacific Institute President and MacArthur Fellow Peter Gleick. Why do people buy billions of gallons of expensive bottled water in the U.S., a country where most of the tap water is cheap and extremely high quality? Some consumers don’t like the taste of their tap water. Bottled water is usually readily available, and some companies have launched fear campaigns against the tap, while others produce misleading advertising. But banning the bottle isn’t the solution, Gleick says. Instead, it’s time to take a hard look at the bigger picture to understand why we buy bottled water so as to define alternatives for the future.

Dr. Gleick, thanks for joining us today. I wanted to ask, as a scientist, what drew your real interests to bottled water and to writing a book–Bottled & Sold?
Dr. Gleick: I think the whole story about bottled water is a remarkable one. You have to ask yourself, how did we get to this point, how did we get to a situation where billions and billions of gallons of bottle water are sold in a country where tap water is universally available and of incredibly high quality for the most part and remarkably cheap. How did we get to the point where bottled water, where water itself became a commodity to be bottled and sold? That’s what this book tries to deal with. This book tries to address the history of bottled water, the strange stories behind bottled water, the reasons why people drink bottled water or say they buy bottled water, and how we can get out of the situation we’re in.
You’re pointing out here that there’s a bigger story about how we view and use water–where does bottled water fit in?
Dr. Gleick: Well, here is the big story. The big story is not just bottled water. The big story is the state of the world’s water as a whole and why bottled water has become an important component of that. There are plenty of people who think that we should just get rid of bottled water, that we should ban bottled water, but that’s not what this book argues. I don’t think that’s really the story. What we have to ask ourselves is why do people drink bottled water, when for the most part in a country like the United States and many other parts of the world, tap water is incredibly available and cheap and high quality. Why do we buy bottled water? When we ask that question, we come up with a different set of issues. All of a sudden we understand that there’s a war on tap water by commercial interests. There are places where people don’t like the taste of their tap water or they fear the quality of their tap water. There are places where we just can’t get water conveniently because our water fountains are disappearing one by one. There’s a whole campaign to market and advertise water in a commercial sense to us to make us think, well, you know what, to be sexier, to be skinnier, to be more popular, we have to buy this or that brand of bottled water. What this book says is if we really don’t like the idea of bottled water, we better think about why people buy this bottled water and tackle those problems themselves.
“There’s a whole campaign to market and advertise water in a commercial sense to us to make us think, well, you know what, to be sexier, to be skinnier, to be more popular, we have to buy this or that brand of bottled water.”
Tell us some of the secrets–why are people so drawn to buying bottled water?
Dr. Gleick: I think there are four principle reasons why people buy bottled water. I do believe there’s war on tap water, a war being fought by commercial interests who would much rather sell us a very expensive commercial product than have us simply rely on what we’ve always relied on for more than a century now, that is the water coming out of our taps. So people are being made to fear their tap water. That’s one reason why people buy bottled water. A second is people sometimes don’t like the taste of their tap water, and that’s a legitimate concern. In some places, tap water doesn’t taste very good. For that reason, people choose to buy bottled water. A third is that we’re marketed, we’re bombarded with advertising about how this or that brand of bottled water will make us popular or make us more stylish or make us skinnier or sexier or all of the tools of marketing are being used to push bottled water on to consumers. The fourth reasons is it’s increasingly hard to find tap water. Bottled water is really convenient. Think about where you are at any given moment of the day, and you can probably find somebody selling bottled water within a few tens or hundreds of feet, in a vending machine or a 7-11 or some other convenience store. Bottled water has become pretty ubiquitous, and yet our water fountains are disappearing. For all of these reasons, I think sales of bottled water have exploded, and we’ve become increasingly reliant on what used to be a pretty odd thing to think about, that is commercially packaged pieces of plastic holding a little bit of water.
ABOUT Dr. Gleick:
Peter Gleick
Dr. Peter Gleick is president of the Pacific Institute, an internationally recognized water expert and a MacArthur Fellow.
Are there some larger discussions that play, perhaps around human rights, regulations, even fundamental values, that deserve or demand new attention?
Dr. Gleick: Bottled water is a piece, only a piece, of the world’s water problems. I would be the first to acknowledge, and this book clearly acknowledges, that there are parts of the planet where you don’t want to drink the tap water. Either there is no tap water because governments or communities have failed to meet their basic human needs for water, they’ve failed to provide safe, reliable tap water for people, and bottled water is the only alternative. The problem is that it’s an alternative only for the rich. In places where there is no acceptably clean tap water, the wealthier parts of communities buy bottled water. They spend the money necessary to buy safe water, but that leaves out of the equation billions of people who can’t afford to buy bottled water and who don’t have access to safe tap water. The answer is not to provide bottled water for everybody. The answer is to spend the money and to build the infrastructure to provide safe, clean and affordable tap water for everybody. But in other parts of the world, in developed countries where we have safe tap water, I think we really need to look deeply within ourselves and within our communities about what bottled water really means and whether we ought to be addressing the reasons people buy bottled water.
There’s a huge complex here built around a largely profitable commodity in a plastic bottle. How can a company shift its earnings away from bottled water and explain that to its shareholders? How could they or would they change?
Dr. Gleick: A number of companies and a number of big companies are making a lot of money selling us bottled water. Bottled water has become a commodity, and I don’t argue in the book that we ought to ban bottled water. I don’t that’s realistic. I think bottle water could be considered a commodity like any other commodity. I do believe, however, that in places where governments have failed to provide safe drinking water from municipal systems, safe tap water, that what we ought to require is that there be universal access to safe tap water, that we provide the alternative to bottled water, and that we marginalize bottled water. Bottled water ought to be a choice that people make, but it shouldn’t be a requirement. That’s something that most parts of the world don’t have the luxury of having at the moment. We don’t have the luxury of safe tap water in many parts of the world, but if we’re not going to ban bottled water, bottled water is going to be a commodity that’s available. I think there are other things that we ought to do to make it a marginalized commodity. If people really want to spend the money to buy bottled water, fine, let them, but let’s remove the reasons that people buy bottled water. Let’s put in place, for example, pretty strict rules about advertising and marketing; about false advertising; [and] about letting companies claim that bottled water is safer than tap water, which for the most part in richer countries, it isn’t. Let’s put in place rules so that they can’t claim it makes you skinnier or sexier without proof that it can do the things its advertisements claim. Let’s make sure that tap water tastes good everywhere. That’s not magic–we know how to make tap water taste good, and in places where it doesn’t taste good municipalities ought to make sure that it does. Let’s remove that as a reason. Let’s rebuild our water fountain infrastructure. There ought to be water fountains everywhere so that people can get safe, inexpensive tap water whenever and wherever they are. Finally, I think there ought to be pretty strict regulations on the quality of bottled water, and there aren’t in most parts of the world.
“There are all sorts of advertisements for magically clustered or magnetically re-arranged or cosmically altered bottled waters that are just crap, and yet there is no adequate control by the Federal Trade Commission, by the Food and Drug Administration, by any federal or international agency to protect the public.”
Do you have a specific marketing story you can share that really caught your eye during the research for the book?
Dr. Gleick: One of the problems that we face on the marketing side is that we have in place pretty strict rules for false advertising, but what we don’t have in place is enforcement of those rules. You get, especially on the Internet, where people can say almost anything they want without much oversight, [or] without much enforcement of false marketing laws, you get bottled water companies saying things that simply aren’t true. You get bottled water companies advertising oxygenated water, as though magically you could get more oxygen to the human body through bottled water than you can get through breathing–which you can’t. You get marketing of bottled waters that will tell you that you can lose weight, and there is, of course, no shortage of diet scams in any industry, but even the bottled water industry is susceptible to marketing scams for dieting. There’s no magic bottled water that can make you lose weight. There are all sorts of advertisements for magically clustered or magnetically re-arranged or cosmically altered bottled waters that are just crap, and yet there is no adequate control by the Federal Trade Commission, by the Food and Drug Administration, by any federal or international agency to protect the public. I think that makes people spend money on waters that don’t do them any good without much government protection.
Can you give us some examples?
Dr. Gleick: There are many different kinds of bottled water. There is a small subset of water bottlers that make all sorts of claims for what their magic bottled waters can do. They’re magnetically altered. They’re electrically altered. They’re physically altered. There magic chemicals added to them that give them special properties. Most of this stuff is garbage, and it’s time that our regulatory agencies stepped up and really did their job in protecting the public. There are more traditional bottled waters that come from reliable bottlers, and even many of them hint that their bottled waters are safer than tap water, that they’re more protected than tap water, and for the most part it’s just not true.
On the bottles we buy, there are different labels–there’s spring water, regular water, what’s the difference?
Dr. Gleick: There’s lots of different kinds of bottled water, and there’s lots of different labels that we see on our bottled water, but the two principle differences are spring water and stuff that doesn’t say spring water. Spring water, in theory, is water that comes from ground water aquifers, either from an actual spring or from a well drilled into or nearby a naturally flowing spring. Then there are the other waters, which are typically in the United States and elsewhere, [that are] simply reprocessed municipal water. More than 40 percent of the bottled water sold in the United States is simply reprocessed municipal water. It comes from municipal taps. It comes from municipal water systems, and it sometimes runs through additional processing, but it’s certainly no safer than our municipal water. Yet, people don’t understand that. People think, well, if it’s bottled, it must be better than our tap water, and it isn’t. Now spring water itself, in some ways I would argue, is even riskier than reprocessed municipal water. At least municipal water we know is supposed to meet federal standards for tap water already. Spring water is, in my opinion, at risk of contamination that municipal water isn’t. The book talks about some of the risks of spring water. I think, for the most part, bottled water is relatively safe, just as for the most part our tap water is safe, but we don’t inspect bottled water as frequently or as carefully as we inspect municipal water. I actually think tap water often is far better monitored and inspected and protected than some of the bottled waters that are sold in the United States.
And one of the other major questions with spring water particularly is who owns it? Do you touch on that in the book?
Dr. Gleick: I do. One of the controversies about bottled water is where it comes from. Increasingly, because a lot of the bottled water sold in the U.S. is labeled spring and hence has to come from or near natural springs, there’s more and more controversy over where that water is coming from or what the local impacts on local communities are going to be. There are more and more stories, some of which are described in the book, about local communities opposing bigger and bigger bottled water companies coming in and taking their local spring water. In some cases, they’ve dried up local springs or local wetlands. In some cases, there’s concerns about massive amounts of truck traffic driving through local communities as these big water companies come in and build massive bottled water plants. There is this part of the movement against bottled water, a local movement against some of these big bottling companies, and I think there’s going to be more and more pressure on these big companies not to take water from some of these local communities in ways that cause problems. I think that’s part of the movement against bottled water.
And finally, so what’s your vision for bottled water in the next few years?
Dr. Gleick: I see two possible futures. I see a future in which we fail to protect our tap water and we continue to fail to provide basic water, basic clean and affordable water for all of the world’s people. In that future, bottled water is a bigger and bigger deal. We bottle more of it. We sell it to people who can afford it. The poor continue to suffer from the lack of availability of safe, inexpensive tap water, and water related diseases continue to plague especially the world’s poor. I think that’s a future we could easily see in which bottled water becomes a bigger and bigger story, a bigger and bigger commodity. But I see another possible future, and that is one in which we continue to have bottled water available as a commodity, but it becomes a weird thing. It becomes something that people only buy because they have a lot of money or because they really think that it’s something that they want for reasons of style or glamour. But, for the most part, bottled water becomes once again what it used to be–that is a small and insignificant part of our water story. What we really have is we have extensive, widely available, inexpensive, high quality, good tasting tap water for everybody. As long as we fail to provide good safe tap water for everybody, bottled water has a niche. It has a foothold, but as soon as we provide safe tap water for everybody, then bottled water becomes something that unnecessary. If we can make it unnecessary, then it won’t disappear, but it will once again become a small part of the water story and not a big part.
Thanks so much for joining us. We’ve been speaking with Peter Gleick, President of the Pacific Institute and author of the new book, Bottled and Sold. To learn more about global issues and the stories behind them, be sure to tune in to Circle of Blue online at CircleofBlue.org.

Our theme is composed by Nedev Kahn, and Circle of Blue Radio is underwritten by Traverse Legal, PLC, internet attorneys specializing in trademark infringement litigation, copyright infringement litigation, patent litigation and patent prosecution. Join us gain for Circle of Blue Radio’s 5 in 15. I’m J. Carl Ganter.

3 replies
  1. Lydia Chambers says:

    As co-founder of Back2Tap, I’ve been working for the past 2 years to raise awareness nationally about the bottled water problem. I am amazed at the number of Americans who are still unaware that drinking bottled water is a problem and who are very reluctant to give it up. Thank you for outlining the four reasons why people are drawn so strongly to bottled water.

    I would add that it could also be attributed to our popular culture; we seek immediate gratification and we focus on the individual – wanting an “i” this and “i” that. Plus, there is a serious distrust of government and willingness to let the private sector set up the rules.

    In this political climate it will be a tough challenge to bring people around to support investing in the infrastructure we need to avoid a bottled water future. I’d be thrilled to discuss this further with Mr. Gleick.

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply