This year more than 25 billion single use plastic water bottles will be sold in the United States alone and more than 80 percent of those will end up being disposed of rather than being recycled, that’s 20 billion bottles to the landfill.
It’s not exactly jaw-dropping news that big names in the corporate world are suffering as a result of the current global economic crisis. But the decline in Nestlé’s bottled water sales (a 5% drop in North America and Western Europe) is particularly representative of our changing environmental values. Nestlé, the multi-billion dollar conglomerate, manufactures bottled water under the labels Poland Spring, Perrier, Pellegrino, and Deer Park. As people cut back on spending, luxury goods are usually the first things to go. That is to say, if you can hardly put your kid through college it’s unlikely you’ll be spending $3.50 on a bottle of Poland Spring at the movie theater this weekend.
The bottled water phenomenon is unique, however, in that it raises the question: when did water—the most essential element of human survival—become a luxury good? How did the most basic ingredient for health and happiness become a commodity? Water should be a human right because it is something that every person needs to lead a decent life. If that’s the case then,
why are we letting billionaires package our human rights in plastic and then sell them back to us at inflated prices?
Nestlé, among many others in the corporate realm, has the power to turn a necessary good into a luxury good with the use of clever marketing. Some trendy grocery stores are selling water in drop-shaped containers with gold caps and others sell water specifically marketed for children. They even have caffeinated water these days.
I understand that this is a contentious issue and that many people have lost confidence in our municipal water systems to the extent that they have now refused to drink tap water. In some places, these concerns are somewhat merited and should not be discarded as bourgeois paranoia. If the water in New York City was indeed unsafe to drink, then I too would pay five bucks for the bottled stuff in a night club. But actually, bottled water is often less regulated than public water systems, and the plastic used in the bottles has been known to contain harmful chemicals that leach into the water.
Even with a 5% drop in bottled water sales, Nestlé is still leading the way toward corporate control of our most valued resource. While some consumers are wising up to the facts about the safe quality of our municipal water systems and the harmful environmental consequences of bottling water, I don’t think Nestlé is going to loosen its grip on their luxury good marketing scams any time soon. However, it’s encouraging to hear what the Think Outside the Bottle campaign is up to. Communities, religious organizations, and students nationwide are doing their part to promote tap water use for the sake of environmental protection. Also, it makes me happy to see that American mayors are challenging private control of water as well. Government officials from Florida, California, Washington and beyond have collectively decided to decrease the bottled water consumption in their areas in hopes of easing the stress on our wallets and our environment. The green efforts that people are making on big and small scales chip away at my sometimes thick layer of cynicism. So for the moment I’m feeling optimistic that we can turn water into a human right again and save a little money while we’re at it.
As a final note, don’t be naive and drink bottled water…