War On Tap: America's Obsession With Bottled Water

May 17, 2010 - TERRY GROSS, host:Heard on Fresh Air from WHYY
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
When you're drinking bottled water, do you ever wonder where it comes from? Is it really from the spring that it's named after? Is it really just purified tap water from a municipal system? Is it worth lugging home gallons of bottled water when you can turn on the tap in your kitchen sink? My guest, Peter Gleick, has written a new book called "Bottled and Sold" that answers a lot of questions about bottled water and also describes some of the problems it's causing. Gleick says every second of every day in the U.S., 1,000 people buy and open a plastic bottle of commercially produced water and, every second of every day, 1,000 plastic bottles are thrown away. Bottled water may taste good, but Gleick says it's producing billions of tons of carbon dioxide and other pollutants. He says Americans should be insisting that their municipal water systems are maintained and upgraded so that they can provide public tap water that is safe and tastes good. Gleick is a water expert who was named a MacArthur fellow in 2003. He's the co-founder and president of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment and Security, based in Oakland. Peter Gleick, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Most bottled water has such healthy-sounding names, like with springs and glaciers in the title. But the water isn't often - often isn't from a spring, or at least it isn't from the spring you'd think it was from. You give a few examples in your book, like Arctic Spring Water is actually from Lakeland, Florida. Glacier Mountain Natural Spring Water is actually from New Jersey. Are they from springs?
Mr. PETER GLEICK (Author, "Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water"): Well, we get most of our bottled water in the United States from two kinds of places. We get them from springs, and if you actually see the words spring water on the bottle, it's required to come from either a spring or, more likely, from a groundwater well that's drilled into where that spring comes from.Or about 40 or 45 percent of our bottled water actually comes from reprocessed municipal water. And that - I mean, that's a story all by itself. But there are a bunch of strange names for bottled water. We get Arctic water from Tennessee or from Florida, certainly not from the Arctic. Yosemite water comes from Los Angeles. Everest water comes from Texas, and there are plenty of big things in Texas, but Mount Everest isn't one of them. And so, part of the challenge is thinking about what's on the bottle and what they're really trying to tell us versus what's actually likely to be in that bottle.
GROSS: Now, you mention that a lot of bottled water actually comes from municipal water and is then purified and reprocessed. So examples of that kind of water, bottled water that's actually from municipal water supplies includes Dasani, which is produced by Coke; Aquafina, which is produced by PepsiCo; and Pure Life, which is produced by Nestle. So, when bottled water actually comes from the municipal water supply, how is it transformed into bottled water? What do they do with the tap water to - you know, to the municipal water to make it bottled water?
Mr. GLEICK: Many bottlers, and some of the big ones like Coca-Cola and Pepsi that produce Dasani and Aquafina, they take municipal water, they often run it through additional processes, other filters, some kinds of purification systems. For Dasani, for example, for the Coca-Cola product, they actually strip out all of the minerals and then they put minerals back so that Dasani that's bottled in New York or Dasani that's bottled in Detroit or Dasani that's bottled in the San Francisco Bay Area actually all tastes the same. They call it pixie dust or magic dust to make all of these bottled waters taste the same, but it originates...
GROSS: The pixie dust is the packet of minerals that they put in to reinstitute the taste that they took out when they took out the minerals during the purification process?
Mr. GLEICK: Yes, that's right, but you have to understand, this stuff originates as potable tap water in the first place.
GROSS: When you buy bottled water that's actually purified tap water, as opposed to spring water, does it tell you that on the bottle? Does it say this water is actually from, like, the Philadelphia water supply or the New Jersey municipal water plant?
Mr. GLEICK: There is no requirement at the federal level that water bottlers put the source of the water on their bottle. There has been some pressure in recent years to make them do that, and some of the big bottlers are beginning to list their sources, but there's no requirement. But if it doesn't say spring water, you can be pretty sure it's probably coming from some purified municipal water system. And interestingly, Poland Spring, which I think you mentioned earlier...
GROSS: I didn't, but go ahead.
Mr. GLEICK: Oh, I'm sorry - is a Nestle brand. It's pretty well-known on the East Coast. It's one of Nestle's many brands. But in the old days, Poland Spring came from Poland Spring, a spring in Maine that was known for its high-quality water. But the demand for bottled water from Nestle's and from Poland Spring has gotten so large that in fact there's almost no water coming out of Poland Spring anymore. They've over-pumped it and now, Poland Spring water is no longer a source of water, it's a brand name. And the stuff that's in a Poland Spring water bottle may come from any one of half a dozen or more springs somewhere in the Northeast.
GROSS: But it's still spring water, but you're saying that you think the name is misleading, that most people think it's actually the Poland Spring that they're getting the water from, not just a brand name now?
Mr. GLEICK: I would think that if I didn't know better. I would think that Poland Spring water would come from that famous Poland Spring.
GROSS: Actually, there was a class-action suit that you write about in your book in 2003 that accused the company of false advertising. What was the outcome?
Mr. GLEICK: Well, that's right. Yeah, when the news sort of started to filter out that, in fact, Poland Spring water no longer came from Poland Spring, I think some consumer groups in Connecticut and Massachusetts sued the company, sued Nestle. And now, if you look carefully at the fine print on a Poland Spring bottle, you'll see it says this water comes - and I don't have one in front of me - but this water comes from, and it lists six or seven or eight different springs. They do list Poland Spring as one of the many springs without specifying actually where it comes from.
GROSS: As you point out in your book, when you buy bottled water, you're unlikely to find out exactly where the water has come from, but you are going to learn that the water has zero calories, zero carbs, zero protein, which you kind of already knew. So why don't you explain those - that labeling issue that you don't have to tell where it's bottled, but you do have to say that it's got zero calories.
Mr. GLEICK: I think bottle water labels are remarkable for how little information they really provide the consumer. They have a name. They have a company. They have often a beautiful logo of a mountain or a, you know, some pristine natural scene.
GROSS: A nice bird flying by.
Mr. GLEICK: And sometimes they have the FDA nutrition label that we're all familiar with from the back our food products that tell us calories, fat, cholesterol, carbohydrates, protein, that kind of thing. And for bottled water especially, that label is just ridiculous. There is no fat. There's no cholesterol. There's no carbohydrates. There's no protein. There are no calories in bottled water. And so you look at a nutrition label for bottled water, and it's zero, zero, zero, zero, zero. But there are things in water. There are always natural minerals in water. And, in fact, you don't want to drink water that doesn't have natural minerals in it. There's calcium and iron and magnesium and potassium and sodium and zinc, and you know, there are all sorts of natural things that are perfectly healthy for us. But our labels in the United States don't tell us what is in our - what really is in our bottled water.
GROSS: So who decides what needs to be on the label? What agency is regulating that?
Mr. GLEICK: Bottled water in the United States is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. They determine the rules for labels. They determine the rules for water quality testing and monitoring. They determine inspection routines. It's odd that in the United States, where our tap water is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency under the rules set by our law called the Safe Drinking Water Act, that bottled water is actually considered a food product. It's different and, hence, regulated by the FDA.
GROSS: So that's interesting. So if you have two glasses, and you pour bottled water into one glass and tap water into the other glass, both glasses are regulated by different agencies.
Mr. GLEICK: And the rules are different and the monitoring - what they measure is different and who does the measuring is different and how often it's measured is different and the rules for notifying the public about problems are different. I think this is one of the big problems with bottled water. I can't come up with a good argument why they shouldn't be identical, why the rules for tap water and bottled water shouldn't be the same, but they aren't.
GROSS: So what are some of differences in how tap water and bottled water are regulated?
Mr. GLEICK: Well, there are lots of differences. One of the big ones is that, first of all, the EPA regulates all of our tap water under federal law. The FDA regulates bottled water but only bottled water that is in what we call interstate commerce, that crosses state lines. And so, if somebody bottles water and sells it within the same state, the FDA doesn't have any regulatory authority over that to begin with. And so, right off the bat, 60 to 70 percent of our bottled water actually isn't regulated by the federal government because it doesn't enter interstate commerce. But then the kinds of things that we measure are sometimes a little different. The rules are supposed to be the same. They're supposed to be no less protective than federal rules for tap water. But we often monitor tap water dozens of times a day.
A big city will do water quality tests dozens of times a day. Bottled water might be tested once a week and once a month or once a year or even less often for certain kinds of constituents. It's often measured by laboratories that aren't independent. The companies often do their own bottled water testing, and they're supposed to report to the FDA, but they rarely do. There are a lot of differences.
GROSS: One of the things you did as research for this book is you filed a Freedom of Information Act. What were you looking for? What did you ask for?
Mr. GLEICK: There is this question about how good our bottled water quality really is, and I believe mostly it's fine, but I also believe that we don't test and measure and report bottled water quality as much as we ought to. And one of the things that I wanted to try and find out was the extent to which the FDA, the Food and Drug Administration, is really keeping track of problems with bottled water. One day, I heard about a recall of a brand of bottled water and that made me think, all right, have there been other recalls of other bottled water? And when I went to the FDA website, where in theory they're supposed to list food recalls, and I looked around for bottled water recalls, I found a few but I didn't find the one that I knew about. And so I wrote to the FDA and said, look, I'd like to know all of the bottled water recalls that you've had. And it took months of back and forth before they finally released all of that information, but it turns out we do have problems with bottled water. There have been more than a hundred official recalls of bottled water, many of which have never been - that aren't publicly available. There's been contamination with mold and with kerosene and with algae, and bottled water's been found with yeast and fecal coliforms and other bacteria and glass particles, and probably - and my favorite example, with crickets. There was an instance in the mid-1990s with a bottler in Nacogdoches, Texas, where they produced bottled water with crickets, and they ended up recalling the water very late, months after the contamination was found and probably months after those crickets were sold.
GROSS: Were the crickets actually in the bottles?
Mr. GLEICK: Apparently. I didn't buy one but there were crickets or - not to be too graphic - maybe cricket parts in some of the bottled water that they bottled and sold.
GROSS: So what's your conclusion based on the FOIA information that you got?
Mr. GLEICK: Well, there are a couple things that I think are worrisome. One is when we really do look at the quality of bottled water, we find problems. Now, that's bad. It suggests we need to be much more aggressive about regulating and protecting bottled water quality and all water quality. Another one is that the rules aren't working right. I think the public ought to know more regularly, more frequently, more openly, about what's in our bottled water. With these recalls, often the recalls themselves were not issued until literally months after the contamination was found and months after the product hit the shelves and probably was bought and consumed. When we have a contamination problem with our tap water, the rules say the public needs to be notified the same day, but with bottled water, the rules are much less strict.
GROSS: So, one of the problems that you have and that many people have with bottled water is that it wastes - it creates and wastes all this plastic. You have, you know, a gazillion water bottles that are thrown out every day, and many of them are not recycled. So what happens to the not-recycled plastic bottles?
Mr. GLEICK: In the United States, probably 70 or 75 percent of the plastic water bottles that we buy and consume are never recycled. The industry likes to tell us that PET plastic is completely recyclable. And that's true, but there's a big difference between recyclable and recycled, and the truth is we're bad at recycling. We don't recycle most of the materials that we use that could be recycled. And the stuff that isn't recycled, it goes to landfills. And when it goes to landfills, it's buried, and it lasts forever, effectively forever. PET, because it's, you know, it's a wonderful food - it's a wonderful packaging for food, but it's wonderful because it's incredibly stable, and that characteristic makes it a bad thing for our landfills.
GROSS: So what is PET plastic?
Mr. GLEICK: The vast majority of the bottled water that's sold in the United States is sold in something called PET, polyethylene terephthalate. It's the plastic with the little symbol number one, for those people who look at the bottom of their plastic containers. And it was invented in the very early 1940s, in 1941, by two British chemists, and it's a wonderful plastic for food. It's resistant to heat. It's impermeable to carbonation, so we can put bubbly things in it. It's strong. It's light. It's impact-resistant. It's transparent, and it's recyclable. It's a pretty good plastic for food products. But it's not so great for the environment.
GROSS: So when you do recycle your bottles from bottled water, what happens to them then?
Mr. GLEICK: Well, it would be nice if we recycled our PET and we collected it, and it was transported to someplace where they turned it back into bottles and closed the loop so that we didn't have to use raw petroleum, a very expensive material to make new, virgin PET. But that's not what happens. When we recycle our plastic, it typically goes, ironically enough, to China, where it's turned into fabric, it's turned into rugs, it's turned into strapping material, it's turned into polyester clothing. It's what we call down-cycled rather than recycled, really.
GROSS: What's wrong with the recycling because isn't it preventing - yeah.
Mr. GLEICK: No, recycling's great. I'm a big fan of recycling. I think 100 percent of our PET ought to be recycled, but I believe that the bottles that we make ought to be made from recycled material rather than from virgin petroleum, from raw resources. If we could close the loop, if we could recycle all our plastic bottles and turn them back into plastic bottles, first of all, we wouldn't have the environmental impact dealing - we wouldn't have to deal with huge quantities of plastic in landfill, and then we wouldn't have to take tremendous amounts of raw energy, petroleum, and turn it into stuff that we throw away.
GROSS: So I'm still trying to wrap my mind around the fact that a lot of America's recycled plastic water bottles go to China for the recycling.
Mr. GLEICK: Yeah, it's sort of amazing, in part because there's not much demand for recycled material here in the United States. Coca-Cola's actually just opened a new plant in South Carolina that is going to turn recycled plastic bottles back into plastic bottles, or they're going to use some of that material for plastic bottles. But it's one of the weird things about the world economy today that it's economic to collect recycled plastic in the United States and then ship it across the Pacific, which is a really big ocean, to China, where they turn it into toys and carpets and other things that they then ship back to us. It's a strange - we live in a strange world, economically, when that sort of thing is practical.
GROSS: You know, I think one of the concerns with tap water is that long after the water system, the municipal water systems were built, new chemicals were dumped into, you know, into lakes and rivers and so on, and so that there's all kinds of pollutants in the water that our system was never designed to filter out and that the EPA doesn't necessarily even test for. So in that sense, you don't know what you're drinking.
Mr. GLEICK: There's no doubt that our tap water system, which is good, could be better and should be better. The federal government should reassess the Safe Drinking Water Act, the law that determines the kinds of things that we measure and the kinds of things we monitor and protect in our tap water system precisely because there are new things in the environment. There are new chemicals. There are better testing methods that let us detect smaller and smaller quantities of things. There are more and more things in our tap water system that might be bad for human health, and we ought to know whether they're bad, and we ought to remove them. And that requires, I think, supporting and expanding state-of-the-art tap water systems. Our tap water's not as good as it could be. It's good, but it ought to be better, and one of the reasons people move to bottled water is because they either are afraid that our tap water system isn't good enough, or it isn't. And it ought to be fixed. The answer to problems with our tap water isn't bottled water, though. We can't afford bottled water for everybody, and I think it would be a big mistake to let our tap water systems decay.
GROSS: Well, Peter Gleick, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. GLEICK: Sure, happy to be here.
GROSS: Peter Gleick is the author of the new book "Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water." He's the co-founder and president of the Pacific Institute.

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