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Bottled Water Sales Dry Up, Industry asks ‘Why?’

Jennifer Alsever

A debate over water is boiling over in the United States and elsewhere amid growing environmental concerns about bottled water and questions about safety of tap water. (Karen Bleier / AFP-Getty Images file)

Heather Lewis was wracked with guilt when she realized she was addicted to the bottle.

Bottled water, that is.

At her worst, she said she went through five plastic bottles of water a day nearly every day for two years.

"It was appalling," said Lewis, an architect from Louisville, Colo. "I felt like Aquafina's trained monkey."

one day in January, as she gazed at the piles of plastic in her
recycling bin, she decided to quit. "It was a cumulative sense of
responsibility that made me do it," Lewis said

is part of a bigger backlash against bottled water happening across the
nation, and after decades of growth, the $11 billion industry is

After steady expansion that saw
U.S. per capita consumption grow from less than two gallons a year to a
peak of 29 in 2007, bottled water sales slipped 3.2 percent in 2008 and
are projected to dip another 2 percent this year, according to
estimates by the Beverage Marketing Corporation, a New York research
and consulting firm.

The primary cause of the decline is hotly contested.

executives say the downturn is purely due to the economy. "We don't
think that anti-bottle water activists have had any impact," said Tom
Lauria, spokesman for the International Bottled Water Association.
"People love their bottled water."

other bottled beverage segment - soda, energy drinks, tea and the like
- saw even worse sales declines this year, said Gary Hemphill, managing
director of Beverage Marketing Group, a research and consulting firm in
New York.

"Environmental concerns among
consumers may have had an effect on bottled water sales, but the
primary reason sales are soft is the economy," he said.

environmental groups are eager to take credit after campaigning for
years against the industry over waste, safety concerns and the
corporate privatization of water.

Restaurants, towns ditch the bottle

And there is no doubt the campaign has resulted in some high-profile changes.

of high-end restaurants - from celebrity chef Alice Waters' Chez
Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., to Mario Batali's Del Posto in New York
City - now serve tap instead of bottled water.

some towns, residents are protesting and rejecting large-scale water
extraction by bit water bottlers. Even during a severe recession,
residents of Wells, Maine, rejected last month a proposal to extract up
to 250,000 gallons a day from an aquifer for Nestlés Poland Spring

New York, Illinois and Virginia state
governments now bar bottled water at public events and in state
offices. Cisco and Google ditched it from their corporate campuses as

"In some ways, bottled water has
become the SUV of the ecological movement," said Tony Clarke, director
of the Polaris Institute, a Canadian nonprofit that organized an
anti-water bottle campaign called "Inside the Bottle."

sites like, and encourage consumers to ditch the bottle,
while environmental research groups like the Environmental Working
Group publicize startling facts like the existence of an area twice the
size of Texas in the Pacific Ocean awash with millions of plastic water
bottles and garbage.

Companies take notice of protests


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Environmental concerns are not going ignored by big bottle water producers like Nestlé, the world's largest water bottler.

has introduced bottles with less plastic and launched a new brand of
water called Resource that uses bottles made of 25 percent recycled
plastic. The company also is doling out local grants for recycling

"We recognize we have an
environmental footprint and it's possible to lower it," said Jane
Lazgin, Nestlé spokeswoman. "We think about that every day."

PepsiCo and Coca-Cola also have launched bottled water products that use less plastic.

on the horizon for the industry: compostable bottles made from corn,
said Lauria. "We will see in our lifetime biodegradable plastic, and
this whole controversy will disappear," he said.

Maybe, or maybe not.

the concern about waste, a separate battle rages over privatization of
shrinking water resources and the impact of bottled water operations on
local aquifers, wildlife, water quality and community access to
drinking water.

Voters in Shapleigh,
Maine, this year passed an ordinance that protects groundwater rights
for citizens but not corporations. The nearby town of Fryeburg has been
in litigation with Nestle for six years over the company's expansion
plans. Similar protests have played out in McCloud, Calif., and in
Mescota County, Mich.

"There's a
realization that bottled water is simply taken from a community and put
in a bottle with a giant price tag," said Jon Keesecker, senior
organizer of the Take Back the Tap campaign at Food & Water Watch
in Washington D.C. "Many of these small communities feel like they're
being cheated by these corporations."

of Nestlé, which has faced criticism for its extraction practices, say
they use groundwater just as any farmer or beer plant might, and its 75
springs provide jobs and economic diversity to small communities.

health of these springs requires vigilance to be sure they're stable
and safe and sustainable, and that allows us to be in business," said
Lazgin, Nestle spokeswoman.

Water safety questioned

YouTube videos, research studies and press releases continue to fly
about another controversy - the health and safety of tap vs. bottled

Each side argues over which water
is more highly regulated. The Environmental Protection Agency oversees
tap water while the Food & Drug Administration examines bottled
water, so they're handled differently.

the last 10 to 15 years, bottled water companies have been marketing
that theirs was safer and healthier than tap water," said Patti Lynn,
campaign director at the environmental group Corporate Accountability
International. She said the marketing undermined consumer confidence in
tap water as well as necessary public investments needed to maintain
public water systems, which face a $24 billion gap in funding.

environmental groups have been making their case against bottled water
on safety. Last year, the Environmental Working Group looked at 10
brands of bottled water and found that bottled water can contain
complex mixtures of industrial chemicals never tested for safety, and
may be no cleaner than tap water.

water companies defend their water and claim they are highly regulated
by the FDA. Industry Web site reports that
bottled water is tested 30 times more often than tap water and that the
Centers for Disease Control attributes more than 19 million illnesses
to tap and none to bottled water.

held hearings on safety regulation of bottled water over the summer,
and the Government Accountability Office issued a report that revealed
current FDA rules don't require certified laboratories for water
testing of bottled water nor public disclosure of quality and
contaminants found in bottled water as EPA rules do for tap water.

this month, Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., introduced the Bottled Water
Safety and Right-to-Know Act intended to inform consumers about what's
in bottled water. Lautenberg has introduced similar legislation in the


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