Monday, August 6, 2007

A toast to America's tap water

I originally posted this NYT editorial to a forum I'm on, and expressed hope that Pepsi was fighting a losing battle. Pepsi recently announced that Aquafina bottles would say they contain tap water. The edit highlighted the excellent quality of American municipal water, and the economic and environmental costs of bottling and shipping water.

Then someone shared this Canadian news item. Then I found this
news report about NBC's Today Show calling in professional wine tasters to judge water from 12 cities (turns out most American tap water is yummy, and the best tap water is from Salt Lake City). Excerpts:
To avoid bias, New York City’s water — whose quality is generally held to be among the best in the nation — was not entered. NBC affiliates in 12 cities were given two identical, clean plastic bottles which were filled from taps and shipped to New York, where they were stored at 60 degrees — cellar temperature — at the request of the judges. The tasting was done in the studio kitchen production area with clean glassware, cubes of French bread for palate-cleansing and spittoons.

Running close behind [Salt Lake City] in the unscientific, blind taste-test of the water from 12 cities were runners-up Boston and Columbia, S.C. Boston’s water, said Bastianich, "has a purity — it’s straight down the middle." "It’s very crisp and appealing," offered Lynch.

Columbia’s tap water, said Lynch, is "luscious — I like its guts."
The report also mentions an interesting San Francisco Chronicle investigation:
Last month, partially in response to a “San Francisco Chronicle” investigation that found that the city had spent $2.36 million of taxpayers’ money in 4 ½ years on bottled water, [San Francisco mayor Gavin] Newsom ordered all city departments and agencies to stop buying bottled water effective July 1.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has also told his agencies to stop spending tax dollars on bottled water.
Then, oddly, a couple of people on the forum responded skeptically, saying their friends and roommates drink bottled water. Well, we all have anecdotal evidence to show that people persist in drinking bottled water. I too could have mentioned the plastic bottles that litter train carriages and railway stations in Mumbai. But how many of us have "anecdotes" from bottlers, marketing professionals, and municipalities? I'm trying to say that bottled water is a growing concern of governments and municipalities. Apparently, even marketing professionals are concerned about it. It's obviously something the media are taking up, as a simple Google News search will reveal.

So I explained my optimism to my forum fellows. I don't think Pepsi's business is going to plummet or close any time soon; such battles are never won or lost quickly; such huge corporations have tremendous staying power. I was reckoning several years. But I do think it's significant that US municipalities are asserting themselves against bottled water. It's not unrealistic to expect that other municipalities may join San Francisco and LA. If the momentum gathers or even just keeps up, Pepsi and other bottlers will have to up their ad budgets (i.e. lower profits) and will see a decline in sales. It would spur them to re-evaluate the profitability of bottled water. It took years to make a dent in Big Tobacco, but much of it happened after governments woke up to the issues.

As for the media coverage, here is just the first page of results from my Google News search for Fiji drinking water. Remarkably, these are nearly all mainstream news media bringing the issue to the public, not environmentalists and progressive community newsletters preaching to the choir.

Americans rethink wasteful approach to water Independent, UK
Chugging bottled H2O is bad for earth Newsweek/MSNBC
Some upscale restaurants shun bottled water Associated Press, via MSNBC, from Berkeley, CA

Bottled water industry fights back through ads Newsweek
Bottled water trend hits dam of protest Albany Times Union
Let's bag those criticisms of plastic Baltimore Sun (weakly defensive piece, IMHO)

Drink to your health By a rabbi, in Five Town Jewish Times, NY.
Clean, cheap water vital to nation's health Monterey Herald (reproduction of NYT editorial)

All the above stories are from August 1 onwards. Below are some early stories, the first drops of the deluge, so to speak. Same Google search.

Bottled water=bad...right? Plenty Magazine, NY, July 18, 2007

Don't buy water from Fiji Groovy Green, Ithaca NY, July 9, 2007
Label change adds clarity to bottled water debate Arizona Daily Star, July 27, 2007

I'm willing to bet this onslaught isn't going to cease soon...

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