On the morality of bottled water

By Dan Delmar on September 2, 2009

“We spend money on things we used to get for free. Do you know how many people on earth are dying of thirst? How many people walk 10 and 20 miles to get some fresh water? You know what it means when you only buy bottled water? It means you only use tap water on your ass! And you wonder why people want to blow us the fuck up. We got ass water, that’s why!” 

~ Chris Rock, Kill the Messenger


Journalists are often invited to all kinds of launch parties, cinq à septs, premieres; it’s one of the perks of the job. Most are fairly unremarkable and formulaic: Wine, women, tapas and, “hey, are you going to mention how revolutionary ‘Product A’ or ‘Politician B’ is in your article?” Not likely, no. But thanks for the chicken skewers. 

A couple of years ago, I attended one such party at Holt’s Café, which often tends to be the venue of choice for introducing more BS into the economic ether. There was booze, models, sushi…and water. Plenty of water. What was being sold to us was a repackaged, over-marketed, pricier version of the same H2O that Naya bottles in Mirabel; the same stuff that comes out of the tap at my country home.

I won’t mention the brand or the name of the distributor; a young, creative entrepreneur who is just trying to make a buck. I can respect that. The problems that arise from the bottling of water need to be addressed at a higher level. Environmentalist David Suzuki says it’s time to look at a Canada-wide ban. I say it’s time to discuss the morality of allowing corporations to pilfer a natural resource which belongs to all citizens of a nation, only to sell it to those same citizens in non-biodegradable plastic bottles, at a price higher than gasoline and, in some cases, at a price higher than wine. 

Canadians drink, on average, 60 litres of bottled water every year. Not all bottled water is the same, you know. Like wine, experts say, taste varies from bottle to bottle. In fact, water sommeliers are now popping up in finer hotels and restaurants in some North American cities. At the Ritz-Carleton in New York, water sommelier Filip Wretman helps diners match the right bottle of H2O with their meals. 

"I'd say it's a little bit oily," Wretman told a journalist with The Record, a New Jersey newspaper who put his palate to the test. "It's not bad. It's sort of medium-soft. It's more on the soft side but still leaves a little mineral aspect on the teeth. It has a bit of an aftertaste…”

bottleh2obw.jpgDoes Wretman really know what he’s talking about or is he a part of the marketing machine that is the $35-billion bottled water industry? Take one of the more prestigious brands coveted by some Hollywood celebrities and the equally self-absorbed: Bling H2O.  Bling comes in a 750 ml. frosted glass bottle, encrusted with Swarovski crystals. The premium bottles are even corked! At the time of the Holt’s launch party, the young distributor told me, to my astonishment, that these bottles retailed for $75; cases for $900. It appears as though the price has since been heavily discounted. According to the Bling website, that same bottle now costs a mere $40. A bargain!

One would think they would bottle Bling H2O at a distant corner of the globe, tapped from an ancient spring that can only be reached by the most seasoned Sherpa. But in fact, it comes from a quaint, working-class town called Dandridge, Tennessee. Bling H2O is bottled by English Mountain Spring Water and is sold locally under its substantially less glamorous house-brand. I called the Rightway Foodmart, a Dandridge dépanneur, shortly after the fancy water party and Ronnie the cashier told me that the water there retails for $1.59 a gallon.

The water industry has created an even more offensive product: Ice Rocks. They are tiny, hermetically-sealed packets of water that are ready to freeze. The obsession with “clean,” “pure,” water of the highest quality has gone so far that, it seems, there is now a demand for pre-packaged ice cubes. I was given a package of Ice Rocks inside a swag bag at the water party (I used them in a glass of tap water – how uncouth!). The empty package is now stapled to a bulletin board over my desk as a symbol of the dangers of capitalism run amok.. 

The makers of Ice Rocks would like you to believe that Canadian tap water is so contaminated that it can’t even be used for ice. Of course, it isn’t and there’s no evidence to suggest otherwise. But that doesn’t prevent the water industry from crying Walkerton every time it is pressed on the merits of bottled water over tap. What the makers of some of the more popular brands like Dasani and Aquafina don’t want you to know is that their products, along with 40 per cent of all bottled water, comes straight from the tap (written, in fine print, on those bottles in the U.S. is the acronym ‘P.W.S.,’ which signifies that it comes from a ‘public water source’). Anyone with a faucet and a filter can have the same water they buy at the grocery store, for free. 

And the 60 per cent of water that comes from ancient springs, glaciers, caves and the tears of virgins? Are the imported brands any better than filtered water that comes from our taps? Think of the waste that is created not only by the process of manufacturing bottling water (for every litre of water, two more are used in its production), but by transporting it worldwide. If Canadians think water from France is best; if the French prefer Canadian water; if Asians fancy American water; if Americans buy Norwegian…who is right? Who best combines two hydrogen atoms with one of oxygen?

While the West wastes water while bottling water, those in developing nations look at our excess and frivolity with disgust and disappointment. Maybe the Canadian government should look at the feasibility of a country-wide bottled water ban. At the very least, it’s high time consumers started to take a critical look at what they are being sold. What is the next thing we will take from nature and sell back at a premium? Air?

Sadly, we’ve already sunk that low. Commercialized air is the domain of the oxygen bar. You can sell blood and semen; in some slightly less civilized countries, organs. It won’t happen in the next quarter, or the one after that, but what will the corporation do when there is nothing left to sell? 


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