Turn on the tap

Why do Americans buy expensive bottled water when they have high quality tap water? That’s been an abiding enquiry for PETER GLEICK. Scientist, economist, environmentalist and co-founder of Pacific Institute, an environmental think-tank in Oakland, California, Gleick answered BHARAT LAL SETH’S questions over e-mail

By Bharat Lal Seth
Published: Saturday 31 July 2010

imageOn the bottled water revolution

Bottled water consumption in the US, and worldwide, has been growing rapidly for two decades. It really began when bottlers started using plastic bottles. In my book, Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water, I argue there are four major reasons people are moving to bottled water. The first is growing concern about the quality of tap water; people are increasingly fearful of tap water and believe bottled water should be better. The second is taste: some people do not like the taste of their tap water. The third is convenience: the industry has made it easy to find bottled water everywhere, while water fountains in public spaces are disappearing. And the fourth reason is intensive marketing and advertising to convince people if they buy bottled water they will be sexier, healthier, skinnier or more fashionable.

On whether fear of the tap is justified

There is no doubt the quality of US tap water remains excellent, but there are occasional problems. We must work harder to protect and expand US municipal water systems. Regulations must be tightened and better enforced, and investment in new technology, replacing old distribution systems, must increase. But the occasional problems with tap water do not justify either abandoning our tap water system or moving to bottled water. That would be a disaster, inequitable, and completely inappropriate in a country with such a wonderful municipal water system.

On municipalities promoting tap water

There is a growing campaign on the part of cities, restaurants, advocacy groups, local communities, and scientists to better educate the public on the problems with bottled water. Sales of bottled water are beginning to decline for the first time in decades, in part, I believe, because we are beginning to address the problems of bottled water publicly.

On banning bottled water

I do not support outright bans on bottled water, but I do support municipalities choosing to spend their money elsewhere and to serve local tap water. I also support taxing bottled water to pay for the additional environmental and social costs of waste disposal. To reduce demand, tackle the reasons people buy bottled water. Support state-of-the-art tap-water systems. Protect consumers from fraud and misre presentations. Ensure truthful labelling on bottles and develop, pass, and enforce smarter water regulations.

imageOn inadequacies in testing bottled water

The US Environmental Protection Agency regulates tap water; the US Food and Drug Administration regulates bottled water. There are many loopholes in bottled water regulation that make it less effective than the regulation of tap water. Not all bottled water is under federal regulation—like when it is completely packaged and sold within a state. The rules for testing for viruses and bacteria are weaker for bottled water. The inspections are less frequent, and rarely truly independent.

On the Indian market growing by leaps and bounds

Invest in local municipal water system. It is not enough just to let the rich and middle class buy bottled water, while the poor suffer from poor water quality, irregular service and access, and the consequences of dirty water. Regulate bottled water. Insist on comprehensive recycling laws. Protect local groundwater from overpumping. All of these must be done to minimize the use and bad consequences of bottled water.

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