THE WORLDWIDE DEMAND FOR WATER is doubling every 20 years. By 2025, two-thirds of all people may be facing severe water shortages. Concurrently, the bottled-water market has been exploding in North America. Today, close to one-fifth of the population relies exclusively on bottled water for its daily hydration. In the past decade, North American sales of bottled water tripled; in some regions consumption of it outpaces coffee, tea, apple juice, and milk.
The Natural Resources Defense Council has estimated that bottled water is between 240 and 10,000 times more expensive than tap water. For Coca-Cola's Dasani and Pepsi's Aquafina, products drawn from municipal taps, this price markup is astonishing. Nestle pays little for the water it takes out of groundwater streams and aquifers. Bottled water is quite simply water transformed into water. Bottled water is often depicted as coming from pristine natural environments. The label on Alaska Premium Glacier Drinking Water claims that it is "Pure Glacier Water from the Last Unpolluted Frontier." Minor detail: The water used for this brand is municipal water drawn from the public water system in Juneau. Similarly, Nestle's Poland Spring brand is not spring water drawn from a pristine and protected source as its label suggests. Usually it is water from borehole wells located near the company's bottling plants, or simply reprocessed distilled tap water.
The bottled-water industry benefits from some health advocates' statements about the rise of obesity and the importance of hydration. Industry manipulations of urban myths like the 8x8 rule (drink eight 8-ounce glasses of water a day) have been turned into hydration calculators featured on the industry trade association's Web site, despite health experts' doubts about their validity.
Consistent with marketing bottled water as an essential component of a healthy lifestyle, the industry stresses recycling. But according to the Sierra Club, this year Americans will throw 30 million water bottles into landfills everyday, while only 13 percent of water bottles get reused or recycled.
News outlets play an unwitting role in promoting bottled water by widely reporting violations of drinking water regulations or failures with our public water systems. Bottled-water plants are likely to be inspected only once every four to five years. Public water systems like New York City's exemplary one undergo stringent checks every four hours.
The International Bottled Water Association (IBWA) argues that its industry is governed by an "effective and comprehensive system of federal and state regulations and standards" that in the U.S. fall under the Food and Drug Administration. …