The privatization of our natural resources has been the greatest driver of economic and social economic inequality since arguably the beginning of civilization. Food and Water Watch has released their report on the bottled water industry over the past many years and it is a pristine example of how money and private interests trump our collective good. Called “Take Back the Tap: The Big Business Hustle of Bottled Water,” here are some of the report’s highlights:
- A gallon’s worth of single-serve bottled water costs almost $9.50 — nearly 2,000 times the price of tap water, three times the national average price for a gallon of milk and four times the national average price for a gallon of regular grade gasoline.
- From 2011 to 2016, the bottled water market grew 39 percent by volume, from 9.2 to 12.8 billion gallons, while the soft drink market shrank 8 percent in volume.
- In 2016, 4 billion pounds of plastic was used in U.S. bottled water production, requiring an estimated energy input equivalent of about 64 million barrels of oil.
- The International Bottled Water Association, Nestlé Waters NA, Nestlé USA and Coca-Cola lobbied Congress on issues including bottled water, water infrastructure, California drought relief and a National Park Service policy to allow parks to ban bottled water sales. These companies’ lobbying expenditures between 2014 and 2016 topped $28 million.
- Multinational bottling companies benefit from public disinvestment in water infrastructure, as the chairman of Nestlé Waters stated in 2009: “We believe tap infrastructure in the U.S. will continue to decline…. People will turn to filtration and bottled water for pure water needs.”
In recent months there has been some movement on the part of municipalities to push back against the egregious assault by companies such as Nestle.
California regulators say Nestle may have to stop collecting a large portion of the water it bottles from the San Bernardino National Forest, because it lacks the legal permits for millions of gallons of water. Nestle sells the water under the Arrowhead label.
The State Water Board says that of the 62.6 million gallons of water that Nestle says it extracted from the San Bernardino spring each year on average from 1947 to 2015, the company may only have a right to some 8.5 million gallons. Those numbers come from a nearly two-year investigation.
This isn’t denying Nestle their chances at getting themselves a new permit. However, it shows how greedy companies like Nestle are, willing to fight to continue not pay something approaching a reasonable price. The United States is not the only country dealing with bad decision-making on the part of lawmakers and permit-givers. Canada has been getting its water ripped off by Nestle for some time now. The fact of the matter is that companies like Nestle also create all kinds of other environmentally terrible bottled waste in the form of soda. And unlike soda, water does not lead to bad nutritional habits. But water is something we can all agree is an essential resource. It is something that should be plentiful and as free as possible. And companies like Nestle work to make them more scarce, and support failing infrastructure. It’s essential to their business model.
Failing infrastructure has already led to a near-total reliance on bottled water in parts of the world. Nestlé started selling Pure Life in Lahore, Pakistan, in 1998 to “provide a safe, quality water solution,” the company says. But locals wonder if the Swiss multinational is exacerbating the problem. “Twenty years ago, you could go anywhere in Lahore and get a glass of clean tap water for free,” says Ahmad Rafay Alam, an environmental lawyer in the country. “Now, everyone drinks bottled water.” He adds that this change has taken the pressure off the government to fix its utilities, degrading the quality of Lahore’s supply: “What Nestlé did is use a good marketing scheme to make tap water uncool and dangerous. It’s ubiquitous, like Kleenex. People will say, ‘Give me a bottle of Nestlé.’ ”
Nestlé has been preparing for shortages for decades. The company’s former chief executive officer, Helmut Maucher, said in a 1994 interview with the New York Times: “Springs are like petroleum. You can always build a chocolate factory. But springs you have or you don’t have.” His successor, Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, who retired recently after 21 years in charge, drew criticism for encouraging the commodification of water in a 2005 documentary, saying: “One perspective held by various NGOs—which I would call extreme—is that water should be declared a human right. … The other view is that water is a grocery product. And just as every other product, it should have a market value.” Public outrage ensued. Brabeck-Letmathe says his comments were taken out of context and that water is a human right. He later proposed that people should have free access to 30 liters per day, paying only for additional use.
So, if and when you can, choose tap water over bottled water.