In a recent article for the Los Angeles Times, Karin Klein examines the controversy surrounding bottling giant Nestlé. The company is currently under no obligation to report how much water it is pumping out of the Millard Canyon. Nestlé’s Arrowhead and Pure Life bottling plant is located on an Indian reservation and thus beyond state or federal oversight.
Normally, how much water is being pumped from what spring is not enough to generate news, but California is currently in the midst of an historic drought, its surface waters thinning and its wells furiously being pumped in order to water its capacious central valley. In this context, Klein argues, the practicality of bottling water must be questioned.
In the U.S. alone, 50 billion bottles of water are purchased every year. Of these, less than 25 percent are recycled. The remaining plastic accumulates in landfills or ends up in the ocean, where it slowly breaks down but never disappears.
For every 1 liter of water, 1.39 liters is used to make it. The spokesman for the international Bottled Water Association, Chris Hogan, sees this as proof of efficiency. “Bottled water products are extremely efficient in terms of water use compared to some other packaged beverages,” he told NPR. This is true when compared to hard alcohol, which requires 34.55 liters of water for every 1 liter of beverage, but it overlooks an important calculation. At 50 billion bottles sold per year, over 69 billion liters of water is going to waste.
Also, about 17 million barrels of oil are used in the bottling process – “enough,” writes Klein, “to power 1.3 million cars a year.”
When one looks deep enough, the entire industry begins to take on an absurd and tragic character. Fiji water, as Charles Fishman discovered in 2007, undergoes a pan-global bottling process that pollutes the very country it extols.
It costs as much to ship the plastic Fiji bottles to the Fiji bottling plant and back as it does to actually extract and bottle the water there. The plant itself runs 24 hours, which is too much for the local utility infrastructure to power, so the plant burns three big diesel generators to compensate. And finally, over a million bottles of “pure” Fiji Water is produced per day, yet half the population of Fiji do not have access to safe drinking water.
With all these facts, it may be necessary to question the practicality of bottled water. There are cheaper and greener alternatives.