Ruth Caplan, co-chair of Alliance for Democracy’s Defending Water for Life campaign, said Nestlé has sophisticated marketing campaigns that convince Americans to buy bottled water. “What they do is they try to make us want to pay a lot of money for bottled water by implying that it’s safer and healthier than water coming out of our tap,” she said. “This whole idea that bottled water is somehow pure is a marketing gimmick that consumers shouldn’t buy.”
“It’s essentially a market for something we don’t even need, a manufactured demand,” said Deborah Lapidus, the national organizer for Corporate Accountability International.
Nestlé understands how to use public relations, advertising, lobbying, and political influence and is not shy about using its money to protect company interests. It has company representatives, lawyers, geologists, and lobbyists as well as association lobbyists and public relation teams. Two large lobbying groups, the International Bottled Water Association and the American Beverage Association, both located in the Washington area, work fulltime promoting the industry’s interests.
Thomas Lauria is vice president of communications of the International Bottled Water Association, a group completely dedicated to bottled water. Upon entering the sixth floor suite of an office building in Old Town, Alexandria, visitors see walls covered in artsy, color photographs of bottled water and are greeted by a receptionist offering them a bottle. Down the hall, Lauria sits in his office at his desk sipping a bottle of water and answering questions about environmental and community concerns against bottle water.
The arguments against bottled water are as numerous as the many Nestlé brands. Lapidus said her biggest concern is the right to water and corporate control of a public resource.
“Really, it’s about who’s controlling water,” she said. “Nestlé’s practices really beg an important business question: Should corporations be bottling and selling water in the first place? At what point did water go from being a public resource and a basic human right to being a commodity?”
Another issue that concerns Caplan and her organization is how few of the bottled water containers are actually recycled. According to Fast Company magazine, Americans used nearly 50 billion plastic water bottles last year, or about 167 per person. Only 23 percent of those bottles were recycled.
“In fact, a lot of the bottles don’t end up in the land dumps,” she said. “A lot of them will end up by the side of the road [or] in the Pacific Ocean.”
Acknowledging that bottled water accounts for some of the nation’s solid waste, Lauria said it is really not that significant compared to waste overall.
Another issue is the lack of testing by the federal government on bottled water. “We want people to understand that bottled water is not tested by federal testing,” Caplan said. “Once water is in a bottle, it is considered a food. That’s why it’s under the Food and Drug Administration.”
Finally, there are the high transportation costs associated with bottling and transporting the bottled water from the plants to consumers. According to a study by Pacific Institute published in February 2009, bottled water requires as much as two thousand times the energy to produce than tap water. Then these 1 billion bottles of water a week must be transported in ships, trains, and trucks in the U.S. alone, largely powered by non-renewable resources.
Angela Logomasini, director of risk and environmental policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, disagrees with many of the arguments against Nestlé and bottled water. On Feb. 17, 2009, she released a study defending bottled water.
“I looked at the data and the data doesn’t support a lot of the claims that are out there,” she said. Her study says plastic water bottles amount to only .3 percent of the nation’s solid waste, and there is no need to worry about running out of landfill space because landfill companies have found ways to compensate communities for hosting landfills and can find sufficient space.
Lauria said the number of bottles being recycled has increased and now 23.4 percent of bottled water is recycled, as opposed to 20 percent in 2006. He also said bottled water companies are promoting recycling through notices on bottled water bottles and promoting recycling programs.
Logomasini’s study contends FDA regulations are not as relaxed as environmentalists claim. She said the regulations are based on EPA standards and are very similar, with the exception of some areas where FDA has additional or even more stringent requirements. Logomasini said the differences between bottled water and tap should not be underestimated, and it is wrong to portray them as the same.
“They’re just different products, and I think trying to cast them all as the same or suggesting that bottled water somehow doesn’t meet the same standards is just inaccurate.”
“We don’t believe that [bottled water] competes against tap water,” Lauria said. “It does compete against soft drinks, against coffee. It competes against other consumer, packaged beverages, and it is getting out their share of the market.”
Because bottled water competes against these products, Lauria said it is better for consumers because it is a healthier alternative to high-calorie drinks.
“The energy issue applies to every single thing in a grocery store. … Nothing is without its energy source, that’s a given. So I don’t know why bottled water is considered uniquely qualified to be manufactured.”
He did not address the issue that most of the other manufactured items are not available at home for free.
While Lauria works every day on behalf of bottled water interests, of which Nestlé is a key player, simultaneously Lazgin has an entire staff working just for Nestlé. She said Nestlé mapped their carbon footprint last year and discovered that the best thing a beverage company can do to reduce their carbon footprint is to reduce the amount of plastic in their bottles. Thus, they will require less energy to make, use fewer raw materials, weigh less, cost less to ship, and ultimately take up less space in landfills.
“We live in a very on-the-go society, and people are drinking beverages on the go,” she said. “Our responsibility is to make that packaging as responsible as possible.”
In April 2007, Nestlé released its “Eco-Shape” bottle, which is 48 percent lighter than their previous model. Between then and the end of this year, Lazgin said they estimate they will save more than 195 million pounds of resin and help avoid more than 356,000 metric tons of carbon emissions, the equivalent of taking 78,000 cars off the road for an entire year. Has Nestlé ever considered how many cars not bottling water at all would take off the road for an eternity?
Lauria said he and his organization counter the argument that water should not be bottled in the first place by citing private property arguments.
“It’s not as if any of us want to declare war on a precious commodity we use everyday,” he said. “We’re just trying to get people on the go when they want bottled water convenience that’s there for them. It’s simply wrong to say that we have no right to take a natural resource and make products out of it that people want.”
The battle against bottled water has had a string of successes recently both in rural communities and with the industry as a whole.
“We are now where I couldn’t have dreamed we’d be a few years ago,” Caplan said.
“I think there’s been tremendous momentum overall in terms of people’s commitment to choosing tap water over bottled water,” Lapidus said. “I think the market is shrinking, and people are starting to realize water is in danger and we need to protect water for the long term and make sure future generations are going to have enough water as well.”
“Lately there’s been a lot of exposure of Nestlé’s abuses,” Lapidus said. “There’s this awareness that’s happening, and I think Nestlé is feeling threatened.” Lapidus thinks Nestlé underestimates the willpower of the community residents, which is a mistake. “I think Nestlé is banking on the hopes that people are naïve and aren’t going to be sophisticated enough to learn the laws and to pursue attorneys…,” she said. “But people, when they’re passionate, will go to the length to win and keep control of the most important resource on the planet.”
Are you as interested in water as we are? It is an integral part of our everyday lives. Help us to conserve and celebrate this precious resource.- Nestlé