Bottled-Water Scam Finally Feels Squeeze

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The Boston Globe

Bottled-Water Scam Finally Feels Squeeze

We don't miss the water when the cash runs dry. Bottled water, that is. That refreshing news came recently as Nestle reported nearly a 5 percent drop in bottled water sales in North America and Western Europe. That company bottles water under the familiar names of Poland Spring, Perrier, S. Pellegrino, and Deer Park.

Pepsi’s Aquafina and Coke’s Dasani reported declining or weakening bottled-water sales as well. The president of Pepsi’s North American bottling group, Rob King, said in a July conference call, “In just a tough economic environment, one of the first things that a shopper can do is consume tap water as opposed to purchasing bottled water.’’

The sad part is that ending the bottled-water fad took a recession, when common sense should have kicked in long ago.

While some bottled water does come from the natural springs and mountain lakes depicted on the labels, most is just municipal tap water -- water that is packaged and sold at enormous cost. Two years ago, the Earth Policy Institute estimated that each gallon of bottled water costs $10 a gallon to go from the groundwater to your lips. Each bottle of water kicks the environment twice, first with unnecessary plastic containers and then with the fuel that is burned to transport this heavy liquid load to your door, supermarket, or vending machine. The cost is currently four times the cost of a gallon of regular gasoline.

This sham is so ridiculous that the Government Accountability Office, which studied the issue for a House committee, reported this summer that the energy costs of delivering bottled water to a consumer in Los Angeles were 1,100 to 2,000 times more than the energy cost of tap water, depending on how far away the filled bottles traveled.

GAO researchers also noted that Americans say they drink filtered or bottled water for health reasons. Nearly half of state officials around the nation report that their consumers believe bottled water is safer than tap water. This obviously cannot be true when the bottled water is tap water.

Yet, annual bottled-water consumption more than doubled between 1997 and 2007, from 13.4 gallons a person to 29.3 gallons. Massachusetts requires the source of bottled water to be put on the label, the GAO noted, but more detailed information is hard to come by anywhere. The GAO found that in a review of 83 bottled-water labels, only one label contained limited water-quality or health information.

Such information was seemingly available on the Web or by telephone for 34 companies, but the GAO found that 13 of these water-quality reports -- more than a third -- were incomplete or unclear. The GAO concluded that the Environmental Protection Agency’s rules for tap water are generally stronger than the Food and Drug Administration’s regulation of bottled water.

So much for the illusion that bottled water is healthier than tap water.

Meanwhile, the bottles themselves remain a symbol of our wasteful times. Three-quarters of water bottles end up in landfills.

In House testimony last month, GAO’s director on natural resources and the environment, John Stephenson, said consumers would likely benefit from more information than they can find on the unhelpful labels on bottled water. Then again, if shoppers knew more about the product, they might not buy bottled water at all.

In one of the more outrageous examples of bottled-water scamming, the Merced (Calif.) Sun-Star reported in June how the Safeway supermarket chain turns Merced city water into an enormous profit. “In Safeway’s case,’’ the newspaper reported, “they pay more than $1,000 a month for more than a million gallons of water. The retail cost for that much-purified bottled water at Safeway is just under $3 million. Safeway would not say how much it costs them to produce their water.’’ Yet Safeway spokeswoman Teena Massingill told the Sun-Star, “We are providing a product that did not exist previously.’’

Last I heard, water existed before bottles, and before Safeway. Thankfully, consumers are beginning to remember that, too.

Derrick Z. Jackson

Derrick Z. Jackson is a columnist for the Boston Globe and can be reached at jackson@globe.com.

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