HOT SPRINGS — Breck Speed hates this sort of thing.
“The Natural Resources Defense Council has estimated that bottled water is between 240 and 10,000 more times expensive than tap water. For Coca-Cola's Dasani and Pepsi's Aquafina, products drawn from municipal taps, this price markup is astonishing. [Dasani is drawn from Little Rock's municipal taps.] 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 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.”
That was Karl Flecker writing in The American Prospect magazine under the headline, “Backlash Against Bottled Water,” and there's only one part of it Speed agrees with: A backlash against bottled water is indeed under way. It's an undeserved, misguided backlash, in Speed's view, but real nonetheless.
“Three groups of people have come out against bottled water over the last 18 months,” Speed says. “There's the municipal water people, the mayors and the waterworks commissioners. They're afraid that if people are happy drinking bottled water, they won't be willing to spend money on maintaining and improving city water supplies. Then there are the environmentalists, like the Sierra Club. They see all plastic as evil. [Most bottled water is sold in plastic bottles. The Natural Resources Defense Council is an environmental group also.] Third, you have the people who sell home filtration systems.” Some of these groups don't sound like natural allies, Speed notes. “But you know what they say: ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend.' ”
Speed is the chairman and chief executive officer of Mountain Valley Spring Company, whose principal product is Mountain Valley Spring Water. “America's Premium Bottled Water” is its slogan. He does his chairing and executing in a handsome old building on Central Avenue. “America's Premium Bottled Water Offices,” we'd bet. The first floor is open to tourists.
But the headquarters is under fire, figuratively, and from up close as well as long-range. One of the mayors who's spoken out against bottled water is Dan Coody of Fayetteville. Just returned from a national mayors conference in New York, Coody called a press conference a few weeks ago to ask Fayetteville residents to drink tap water instead of bottled water. One of his objections is to the environmental pollution of discarded bottles. The Sierra Club says that Americans throw away 30 million water bottles a day, and that only 13 percent of water bottles are reused or recycled.
Eleven states have “bottle bills,” requiring consumers to put up a deposit, usually a nickel a bottle. The deposit is returned when the bottle is returned for recycling. A bottle bill was introduced in the Arkansas legislature a few years back. The bottlers crushed it. Grocers also objected to the bill, saying they had no place to store returned bottles, and that empty soft-drink bottles draw flies. Coody supported that bill. He knows of no plans for another.
Speed agrees that “too much” bottled-water packaging is discarded. “The Sierra Club would find natural allies in the bottled-water business,” he says. “Most of us are Greens as well. You'll find huge support for recycling in our industry.” Where was that support when a bottle bill was before the Arkansas legislature?
Bottle bills don't solve the litter problem, Speed says. “If you really want to do the job, you have to have mandatory curbside recycling.” That way, he says, not only can the bottles be saved for recycling, but so can the cardboard, and the peanut butter jars, “and all that huge amount of stuff we throw away. If it's a good idea, let's capture all that stuff.”
Many places, including Little Rock, have voluntary curbside recycling programs. Mandatory programs are rare. Seattle has one, according to Speed. “If you don't separate your garbage, they fine you.”
But, if Arkansas should enact a bottle bill, Mountain Valley will do what has to be done, he said. “We deal with a lot of bottle bills now.”
Speed takes more umbrage at suggestions by Coody — or anyone else — that tap water is somehow cleaner, more closely monitored, more drinkable than bottled water. “He really doesn't want to go there,” Speed says. “We've never done the negative sale against tap water. But tap water is truly not the same quality as bottled water.”
He notes that in Fayetteville and many other cities, including Little Rock, there are times when the city government has to tell consumers that while the city water may look, smell and/or taste funny, it's all right to use. “Can you imagine a bottled-water company trying to communicate that message to its customers? We'd be out of business in a minute.”
Bottled water is regulated by the federal Food and Drug Administration. Tap water is regulated by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. In Arkansas, the state Health Department enforces the federal regulations. As a starter, bottled water must meet the same EPA standards required of tap water, Speed says. Then the FDA imposes stricter requirements of its own — on the amount of lead that's permitted, for one.
Speed says some municipal water systems get good water — from a lake, say — and others get water that's not so good, that might be filled with algae, for example. Most bottled-water companies, including Mountain Valley, use a protected natural spring or deep well as a source, he says. But even those companies who use tap water, like his competitor, Dasani, “take great care to purify it with highly sophisticated filtration processes before putting it in a sanitized, sealed bottle.”
The mayors are being disingenuous when they talk about how often their water is tested, Speed says. “It's not the water they're testing, it's the distribution system, the pipes. They're required by the EPA to test throughout the system. We don't have to do that. Our water is in a sealed bottle.”
He once wrote in an article for an Arkansas newspaper:
“Americans should be neither limited in their water options nor shamed by public figures or interest groups with special agendas for making a choice that is best for them and their families. This is not a close call. The choice to drink bottled water is a healthy one, and a lot better than the option of minimally tested, chlorinated, flocculated, often fluoridated, transmitted-through-old-pipe municipal tap water.”
It sounds almost like a negative sale.
“I remember when bottled water was just getting started on a big scale in the ‘80s,” says Graham Rich, CEO of Central Arkansas Water. “I said that'll never work, people won't pay for water. It's a good thing I'm not in marketing.”
A lot of very sharp people are in marketing, though, and bottled water is now one of the great success stories of American salesmanship. Eskimos keep bottled water in their refrigerators. In 1980, U.S. consumption of bottled water was 605 million gallons. By 1989, it was 2,029,400 gallons. In 2007, it was 8,823,000 gallons, which amounted to $11,705,900 in sales.
Despite that remarkable growth, Rich isn't worried that his own operation will be driven out of business. CAW provides water to Little Rock, North Little Rock and other Central Arkansas municipalities.
“I don't consider them [bottled water] competition at all,” Rich says. “I think it's a personal choice. When I drink bottled water, it's more of a portability issue.” Anyway, less than one percent of tap water is consumed by humans. The rest goes to flush toilets, water lawns, wash cars, supply industry.
“If you took out the container issue, bottled water is a good alternative — better than drinks containing caffeine and sugar,” Rich says, still friendly. CAW bottles some water of its own, but not for sale. The CAW bottled water is distributed at promotional events, and delivered to disaster areas. Of the container issue, Rich says “Anything that would force recycling is a great thing.”
He doesn't underrate his own product. The federal government requires CAW to publish an annual water quality report. The latest report says, “At CAW, we take great care in making sure that your drinking water is safe from the source to the tap. Our laboratory and operations personnel conduct more than 155,000 tests — an average of 425 tests a day, 365 days a year — on the various stages of the treatment and delivery process. … Our mission is to provide you with exceptional service and the best water quality possible at a fair price.” Price, yes. That's a big plus for tap water.
“You can buy a pint of water for 69 cents at a convenience store,” Rich says. “Most of the cost is in the container, the labeling and the distribution. Central Arkansas Water charges $1.85 for a thousand gallons, inside the city.”
And — an unsolicited testimonial — many people like the taste of Little Rock's water. Taste, Rich observes, is subjective, but “I've worked for five other water utilities and Central Arkansas Water is the best-tasting of those.”
Marie Crawford, CAW's director of communications, says “A lot of people tell us they bottle Little Rock tap water and take it with them on trips.”
Robert Hart is director of the Engineering Section of the state Health Department. The Department inspects tap and bottled water to see that it meets the federal requirements.
“This issue of bottled water versus tap water has been around for a long time,” Hart says. “I don't see where there has to be this tension. When a public system is having problems, like a natural disaster, we recommend that people use bottled water. Some people use bottled water for taste, but most people, including myself, use bottled water more for convenience. Drinking bottled water instead of sugary drinks is a good thing.”
But as for bottled water being cleaner, safer to drink, Hart says “I think tap water is every bit as clean.” What about Speed's argument that municipal water sometimes looks, smells or tastes funny, and that bottled water couldn't get by with that? “He's accurate as far as he goes. But people are charging a fraction of a penny per gallon for public water. It may not always meet certain aesthetic standards.”
Like Hart and Rich, Speed too says that bottled water and tap water shouldn't be at war. He too points out that only a small percentage of tap water is used for human consumption. He considers Diet Coke, not tap water, to be Mountain Valley's single biggest competitor.
Still, there is some inherent competition between bottled water and tap water, and it's there, in part, because the demand for bottled water is a manufactured demand. What marketing made fashionable, marketing can make unfashionable, and sometimes that's a good thing. Marketing helped make tobacco unpopular, and overt racism.
No matter how convenient bottled water may be, much of its appeal depends on beliefs that drinking bottled water is chic, that it tastes better and/or is better for you than tap water, and that discriminating people know all this. If you want to be a princess, you have to be able to feel the pea. And, there's the thrill of conspicuous consumption: “I can pay for water, and you can't.”
Should anyone succeed in refuting these beliefs, the sales of bottled water probably would decline.
The comic magicians Penn and Teller did a cable television show in which they persuaded a California restaurant to use a “water steward” who'd supposedly help diners in the same way a wine steward does. The “water steward” had fancy bottles; he made recommendations; customers raved over waters that were so much better than what they could get from a faucet at home. But that's exactly what they were getting. Penn and Teller were filling the bottles from a hose on the restaurant patio.
That sort of demonstration, repeated often and conspicuously enough, might affect bottled-water sales. Or it might not. There's some evidence that American consumers would rather look dumb than undiscriminating.