Not buying it: keeping world’s water safe, public and out of the bottle

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During the spring 2012 term, students at Western Washington University voted to cease bottled water sales on campus, citing environmental impacts as the primary reason for the ban. With this initiative, WWU is poised to become the largest public university in the country to eliminate such sales.

“Western has a long tradition of leadership and educational discussion and initiatives surrounding concerns of sustainability.” said Seth Vidaña, Campus Sustainability Manager.

The city of Seattle and more than 140 other cities already promote tap water over bottled. Mount Rainier is taking steps to phase out bottled water and join Grand Canyon, Zion, and more than a dozen bottled water-free national parks.

Meanwhile, Pierce County sent out a press release on June 26th with the news that Niagara Bottling would be building a new facility in Fredrickson, Wash. (south and east of Tacoma) to bottle the county’s most priceless essential public resource – water.

Despite claims of sustainability and environmental stewardship from Niagara, Pierce County has taken a step in the wrong direction with this move if we wish to preserve equitable access to water here in the US and globally.

In the US, the EPA regulates tap water, while the FDA regulates bottled water. The EPA requires municipal facilities that deliver water to undergo regular inspections and disclose issues to the public.

The new Niagara facility may be bottling that same regulated municipal water, but the requirements to disclose issues within the bottling plant itself are much weaker. The facilities may only be inspected every few years.

What starts out as Tacoma’s finest may not end up that way after the bottling process.

A newly installed water system in Ilamu Muja, Ethiopia. Many small towns and villages in Ethiopia lack access to basic water and sanitation of any kind. Photo by Alex Stonehill.
A newly installed water system in Ilamu Muja, Ethiopia. Many small towns and villages in Ethiopia lack access to basic water and sanitation of any kind. Photo by Alex Stonehill.

So why in the world would anyone drink bottled water?

Not only is bottled water less regulated in the U.S., it’s also less environmentally sustainable than tap water (reusable cup vs. disposable plastic bottle? – pretty obvious environmental choice).

Yet over the past decade and a half, the demand for bottled water has skyrocketed.

How did we get here? In the late ’90s and early 2000s Nestlé, Coca-Cola, Pepsi and other transnational corporations set out to create a new market for a product that we didn’t even know we needed.

According to Fortune Magazine, “Water will be to the 21st century what oil was to the 20th century.” Bottled water corporations spend millions of dollars on advertising in an attempt to change the way we think about water: to transform it from a basic human right into a commodity to be bought and sold for profit. Marketing campaigns often question the safety of tap water here in the US; internationally, advertising and lobbying can undermine attempts by local people to create strong public water systems.

For instance, Suez, Veolia, and Nestlé (all multinational corporations involved in water) have lobbied the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in an effort to push for privatized water. The World Bank, through its financial arm (the International Finance Corporation), drives privatization of water systems as a condition of providing funding to developing countries for other projects. The World Bank holds shares in the very same private water corporations who stand to benefit from its pro-privatization policies.  The drive for profit forces developing nations down unsustainable paths.

Bechtel Corporation was a beneficiary of these policies when it privatized the water system in Cochabamba, Bolivia.  In Cochabamba, as in nearly every place where water has been privatized, rates immediately skyrocketed, making it impossible for many lower income residents to have water. Through protests the city residents kicked out Bechtel and took back control of their water system.

Such stories aren’t limited to Bolivia – we’ve seen privatization attempts here in Stockton, CA and in Atlanta, GA, among others. In each case, rates skyrocket, skilled staff are laid off, investment in infrastructure falls, and the environment is increasingly at risk.

Bottled water is an even more insidious way to make money off of water than just taking over a public water system. Through bottled water, corporations create a system in which people are dependent on them – rather than on a public utility – to get access to water. Bottled water is 240 to 10,000 times more expensive than public water, depending on how fancy you’re getting. So this bottled water – largely produced by our public water systems – is then resold to us, the consumers, for massive corporate profit.

The ultimate rights to water then are owned by the corporation – not the people. And as water scarcity increases globally, corporate ownership of water, and the business of bottling, shipping, and selling water will become even more fraught with problems. Over time, as people become used to the idea that their water comes from Coke, Nestlé, or Pepsi it is foreseeable that it will become less of an issue when someone hears about one of these corporations deciding to privatize a public utility and taking over the water rights in the area.

We have to ask ourselves, who is providing our water, and who do we trust to ensure the safety our water? Is it Nestlé, Coke, and Pepsi, or our own democratically governed towns and cities? Does a corporation focused on profit ever have the same attention towards transparency and equity as a public utility?

Disconnected from Nairobi's city utilities, Kibera residents built everything themselves from powerlines to water cisterns. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)
Disconnected from Nairobi’s city utilities, residents of the Kibera slum have built everything themselves from power lines to water cisterns. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)

In countries where there aren’t currently strong public water systems, like India, the additional problem is that the wealthy, who are most often the ones who also have political power, are the ones who are able to afford bottled water.  They have little motivation to create a public water system that would serve the poor or those who cannot afford to spend huge sums of money on bottled water. During my visits to India in the last decade I have seen the prevalence of bottled water skyrocket, but have seen little change in the water infrastructure.  Bottles are thrown on train tracks and piled high on street corners. Very few developing nations have the recycling capacity to handle the waste produced by bottles and even in the US, very few bottles make it to recycling.

The bottled water industry’s misleading marketing undermines the political will to maintain our public water systems. Here in the US, the push for bottled water undermines investment in our historically strong public water systems. Our public water systems are in need of repair, reinvestment, and strengthening to ensure we have access to clean, safe drinking water in the years to come.

For a community like Tacoma, the short-term corporate investment of a bottling plant is certainly tempting.

The environmental implications of draining water, bottling it in a process that requires huge amounts of fossil fuels and using packaging that mostly ends up in landfills are just the start.

The social implications of creating a commodity out of something that is a basic human right means that we’re moving closer and closer to a world in which the haves and have nots are divided by who can afford safe, clean, drinking water and those who cannot.


  1. I submit that bottled water is cheaper then a pipe system to your house. Looking at the cost of pipes and there maintenance over the years. How much of the water in the pipes are lost? Most of the water in your house dose not go into you body. Like cell phones are cheaper to maintain than the old wire system.

  2. One thing..Water Sampling Stations. If the U.S. had more in major cities it would help determine the amount of bacteria and other toxins found in water streams. Water Sampling Stations by American-MC offer custom water sampling stations to individual customers as well as municipalities around the U.S.

  3. Just came across this article, and while this holds true for regular purified water (for the most part), there are those of us who drink only natural spring water (and have done the research to prove that it’s NOT just tap water with extra filtration). The reason is pretty simple – chemicals. I want ZERO fluoride in my water (did you know that the increase in that is linked to the increase in thyroid disease!?) and I can do without the other nasty chemicals as well. Tap water tastes disgusting. I fail to see how anyone says it “has no taste” when it very much DOES have one – most of it tastes like a pool, and I refuse to drink it. Regular bottled water tastes the same but with a bonus added plastic flavour. *yum* (sarcasm).

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