BLADE ILLUSTRATION/TOM FISHER Enlarge
ORLANDO, Fla. -- The next time you go to the vending machine for a bottle of water (costing 6 cents an ounce) or, instead, sip from the drinking fountain (free), you will be taking part in another debate that touches on the fate of humankind.
Because the next time you grab a bottle from a case in the fridge (costing a penny an ounce) or fill a glass from the tap (a penny for 5 gallons) you will be choosing between dollars and cents, essential hydration and environmental waste, and personal health and public health.
Let your wallet be your first guide, opponents of bottled water say.
"The bottled-water industry has really built a market on casting doubt on the quality of tap water," said Kristin Urquiza, director of Think Outside the Bottle, a campaign devised by Corporate Accountability International, a Boston-based group. "But more and more people are saying, 'Wait a minute, bottled water is costing thousands of times more than tap water.' "
Convenience has its virtues, industry supporters say.
"Sometimes it's a moment-by-moment choice, where you are in front of the 7-Eleven cooler and you grab a bottle of water because that's all you really want instead of a carbonated beverage," said Tom Luria, spokesman for the International Bottled Water Association. "That should be applauded by everyone, just because of obesity and heart disease and other problems that come with excessive calories."
As sales of bottled water took off during the past decade, so did a backlash from environmental and consumer groups that encourage use of reusable bottles.
When sales dropped in 2008 and 2009, the industry blamed the recession, while opponents claimed progress in turning the public against bottled water.
Today, sales are back on track, according to Mr. Luria. But not entirely, said Ms. Urquiza, pointing to a continued lag last year in revenue for Nestle Waters North America Inc., the largest U.S. bottler of water and the owner of several brands, including Florida-based Zephyrhills.
Figures published by the Beverage Marketing Corp., a private research company, show that the industry rebounded last year to sell 8.8 billion gallons, or nearly as much as it sold in 2007, the peak year for sales.
That's not the sole result of any economic recovery; the personal-sized, disposable bottle of water also got significantly cheaper.
"In the single-serve market -- the 1.5-liter-size containers and smaller -- that segment had very aggressive pricing in 2010, and that's one of the factors that helped drive the growth," said Gary Hemphill, Beverage Marketing's managing director.
According to his research on gallons sold, sports-and-energy drinks and ready-to-drink tea and coffee had the greatest gains last year, followed by bottled water, which had an overall growth of 3.5 percent. Pop, still the leading beverage product, continued a multiyear decline.
"The general movement of the consumer is toward healthier refreshments," Mr. Hemphill said. "In that spectrum, we think bottled water is positioned well for growth."
Industry supporters and detractors spar regularly over the effects, good and bad, of bottling water.
Industry supporters note that bottlers have switched to containers made with a third less plastic, reducing them from 18.9 grams -- or the weight of about four nickels -- to 12.7 grams.
Industry detractors say the rate of recycling bottles, according to government figures, is a dismal 25 percent. Even Zephyrhills packaging notes "fewer than 25 percent of all plastic bottles actually are recycled. We need your help."
And the quest by bottled-water companies to tap new sources continues to stir controversy.
After a bitter fight, Niagara Bottling Co. got permission two years ago to pump as much as 484,000 gallons a day from the Floridan Aquifer near Groveland. Today, Panhandle residents are fighting to prevent Nestle from taking nearly 500,000 gallons a day from the spring-fed Wacissa River.
In many respects, the choice of whether to drink bottled water touches on the kinds of trade-offs Americans routinely face in their everyday lives.
A car with a big engine might be fun to drive but costs more at the pump and contributes to a dependency on foreign oil. Setting the air conditioner at 70 degrees might feel comfortable but results in higher utility bills and in power plants discharging more greenhouse gas.
According to Nestle spokeswoman Jane Lazgin, opting for bottled water is not about saying no to tap water; it's about saying yes to a healthier alternative to soft drinks.
"I think society has just become more conscious and mindful of calories in their diet and calories in their beverages," Ms. Lazgin said. "People are just getting back to water."
Mr. Luria, of the International Bottled Water Association, said tap water is "essential to modern living."
"I don't want to knock tap water," Mr. Luria said. "Sometimes bottled water is preferable. It tastes better, it looks better, it's cost-effective if purchased at a big-box store."
But Emily Wurth, director of Food & Water Watch's water program, said bottled-water marketing implies that tap water is unpleasant and unsafe when, by contrast, not all bottled water is as clean and well-regulated as tap water.
"People who probably can't afford bottled water chose it anyway because the marketing has made them fear for the safety of their tap water," Ms. Wurth said.
Her worry is that, as confidence in public-water supplies erodes, support and maintenance for public-water supplies are likely to diminish, setting the stage for takeovers by private enterprise.
"We would be reverting to what a developing country is like, where those who are affluent enough can purchase safe water," Ms. Wurth said.
Orlando Utilities Commission, the region's largest water utility, doesn't foresee losing customers' confidence because of bottled-water marketing. The utility has 32 wells that each extend 1,400 feet into the Floridan Aquifer. They are among the deepest and best-protected wells in Florida -- and they tap the same water source that Niagara Bottling draws from.
OUC's primary water treatment uses ozone, a form of oxygen that zaps impurities. A trace of chlorine is added, as required by regulations, to ensure that the water remains sanitary in pipelines.
Rob Teegarden, an OUC vice president, said bottled water serves a purpose, including convenience.
"If you are willing to pay 3,000 to 8,000 times more for it [than for tap water], more power to you," Mr. Teegarden said.
He said a bigger challenge for public-water suppliers is avoiding a major contamination incident.
"If that happens, all bets are off," Mr. Teegarden said. "But the same could happen with bottled water."
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