Bottles Versus Faucets
By Stephen Leahy*
The bottled water business leads to privatization of water utilities, say water rights activists. But the industry counters that bottled water is safe and environmentally friendly.
BROOKLIN, Canada - Four large corporations control much of the world's booming bottled water industry and pose a threat to public water utilities, according to a report by the Canadian non-governmental Polaris Institute.
The business moves 50 billion dollars a year, and Nestlé, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola and Danone companies control the lion's share of the water market, according to the study ''Inside the Bottle''.
"These companies harvest huge profits from water they either obtain for free or at very low cost from public taps," Tony Clarke, the author the book-length report, told Tierramérica.
Up to 20 percent of the U.S. population and 17.5 percent of Canadians now get their drinking water exclusively from bottled water, Clarke said. According to industry statistics, worldwide sales increased 40 percent between 2000 and 2003, when annual per capita consumption of bottled water averaged 90 liters in the United States and 51 liters in Latin America.
"Bottled water companies' marketing plays on fears about the health and safety of public tap water," said Clarke, though he admitted that there are numerous instances of illness and even deaths from drinking bad tap water, but no illness directly linked to bottled water.
However, last year 500,000 liters of Coca-Cola's Dasani brand water had to be recalled in the British market because of high levels of bromate, a cancer-causing chemical, Clarke said. The Dasani water is tap water that is filtered and treated.
"Similar types of contamination could be happening elsewhere, but no one is testing the water often enough," he added.
Bottled water is regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, says Stephen Kay, spokesman for the International Bottled Water Association, and inspections are conducted by local health authorities, and independent annual inspections are made in each member country.
"We're not trying to discourage consumers from using tap water. People prefer bottled water for it's convenience, safety and health benefits,'' Kay told Tierramérica.
Furthermore, bottled water offers a healthier choice than sugar-rich soft drinks, "which could help Latin America's obesity problem," he said.
If any industry should be nervous about the rapid growth of the bottled water industry, it's soft drink manufacturers, he says.
But Coca-Cola and Pepsi aren't particularly worried, says the Polaris Institute's Clarke, since they have become dominant players in the industry. Coca-Cola has publicly declared that bottled water will be its biggest selling product in a few years.
The France-based Danone, meanwhile, produces the bottled water brands Evian, Volvic, Aqua, and Crystal Springs.
Catherine O'Brien, spokeswoman for Nestlé Canada, said no company officials were available to speak on this issue prior to publication of this issue of Tierramérica. Coca-Cola and PepsiCo did not return calls.
The real worry amongst water rights activists is a cultural shift towards water being seen as a commodity that people should pay a lot of money for, Clarke says.
"There is enormous corporate interest in selling water... Bottled water plays a leading role in conditioning people for the privatization of public water utilities."
Public opposition to privatization in North America is strong, following some well-publicized problems with privatization attempts, says Wenonah Hauter, director of the 'Water for All' campaign of Public Citizen, a U.S. NGO.
Less than 15 percent of water utilities are in private hands in the United States, and the ones that are mainly provide sewage treatment, not drinking water, Hauter said in a Tierramérica interview.
Hauter believes the bottled water sector is also hurting public water utilities because it diverts funds and attention away from improving public water services. "Instead of insisting on healthier tap water, people waste their money buying bottled water," she said.
If there are legitimate concerns about local water, a home water filter is a much cheaper and less wasteful solution, Hauter added..
The tens of billions of bottled water containers manufactured every year have created a huge plastic waste problem. Although recyclable, only a fraction go through that process in the United states. The bulk ends up in landfills.
"We hide our bottle waste in landfills, but in the developing world those bottles are everywhere, including littering the landscape and the ocean," Hauter said. The industry invests huge amounts of money to oppose any deposit system where people would get money for returning their plastic bottles, she added.
But FDA spokesman Kay said "deposit systems are expensive to operate and burden the retailer with having to store all those empty bottles," while curbside recycling programs are better and easier for consumers.
As for places and countries that do not have such programs, it is their "duty" to "embrace recycling for the environmental benefit and to feed the demand for recyclable material," he said.
"I feel that these groups that care about health and the environment should be embracing the bottled water industry for what we do to deliver safe, quality water with environmental stewardship at the top of our list," Kay concluded.
* Stephen Leahy is a Tierramérica contributor.