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Bottled water is a fraud

On a recent episode of the show Democracy Now, they reported Pepsi bowed to the demands of activists and made a rather embarrassing admission: the source for their Aquafina bottled water is city tap water! Now WHO’S tap water is a different question — probably local to the individual bottling plants, but this is still being investigated. This is all a dirty little secret for the bottled water industry. Giants such as Coke (Dasani water) and Nestle, and eventually the little guys, will almost certainly be forced to follow with similar admissions. Pepsi will now be required to print on each bottle the water comes from “public sources.” Check out the article and the streams in the DN link above. Be warned: Democracy Now is very left-wing, very righteous, and sometimes almost comical in their own spin, zeal, and fallacy. Nevertheless, they frequently bring very interesting and important issues of corporate fraud and social injustice to light.

As discussed in the Penn and Teller show Bullshit! (see video of episode below, about 13 minutes) bottled water is basically a scam. It is pure evil marketing at its core, built on lies, greed, and perception-manipulation in the extreme. In the United States anyway, the concept of bottled water is buttressed on the idea that tap water is bad, dirty water and you shouldn’t drink it. Bottled water supposedly provides the “pure” alternative. Brand names like “Aquafina”, “Crystal Geyser”, etc. and their respective marketing evoke images of pure, fresh water in a form only nature herself could provide.

First, the notion of pure water, as envisioned by the public, is not possible except in extreme laboratory conditions. Also, I’m making a distinction here between “mineral water” like Pellegranio (which actually has “extra contaminates” as part of the product — the benefits of which are unclear, but that’s a different story) and just ordinary bottled, apparently “pure,” water. In spite of public perceptions, tap water is HIGHLY regulated to meet rigorous city, county, state, and federal health standards which, in turn, are based on real research and studies. City water is constantly measured and purified to meet those standards and is regulated by the EPA. One can, of course, question those standards and balk at the parts-per-million of sodium, fluoride, mercury, lead, or biomass deemed safe to drink, but at least the process is trying to be transparent. In fact, you can go online and quickly check your city’s water quality and standards reports. For example, in San Luis Obispo, California:

But here is the twist. In spite of all the perceptions and marketing and pretty pictures of happy, young, healthy people frolicking, bottled water has weaker standards of purity and health than tap water. Bottled water is regulated by the FDA, not the EPA. The FDA just doesn’t have the manpower to seriously regulate water in the same way the EPA does. FDA purity standards for bottled water sold in stores is based on consumer standards, not envrionmental standards, the former being less strict. When I say “less strict” I don’t necessarily mean lower standards — in principle. The FDA will rightly claim that bottled water must at least meet EPA standards. However, all the FDA really cares about is that the stuff is “fit for consumption”, is “properly categorized” (not soda, vitamin water, or mineral water), and comes from “a safe source.” Tap water alone more than meets these standards. Essentially the FDA will make sure the stuff sold in stores won’t actively hurt you (at least on short time scales). But realistically, no one has any frickin’ idea what was done to a particular batch of bottled water except the company who made it. And the process is anything but transparent. Can you find an FDA listing of all the bottled waters and their impurity breakdowns by year and batch number? Didn’t think so. That’s why it is such a revelation that Pepsi uses tap water. At least they fessed up. The fact that Pepsi uses tap water thankfully meets FDA standards because tap water is considered a “safe source” (in fact, it’s “more than safe”!) — thanks to the EPA!

In fairness, companies like Pepsi now claim to take city tap water and run it through an “reverse osmosis” filter. In other words, it is supposedly more pure than tap water because of “proprietary” filtering techniques (assuming they actually do it). However, with a few minor plumbing additions, you can permanently make a tap sink at home-filtered with reverse osmosis methods for less than $200 — or even do your whole damn house, showers and all, for less than $1000. So what you are really paying for with bottled water is 1) a plastic container and 2) someone to pre-filter it for you. Or so you hope (or assume), since tap water alone already more than meets FDA purity standards (“fit for consumption”); remember, no one but a couple bureaucrats (probably relying on corporate self-regulation and reporting) is holding these companies accountable to any “extra” purity standard. A lot of things are “fit for consumption,” so what Pepsi does to the water after it comes from that tap is basically not the FDA’s business unless they are actively making poison. An individual could, in principle, simply take unprurified tap water, bottle it, and sell it as “pure water” with a catchy title at 7000 times markup. Which is exactly what Pepsi does. Tap water costs about a penny for 6.4 gallons. Compare that to $1.40 for half a liter of Aquafina. That’s a very hefty tariff to pay someone to “possibly” purify tap water for you. Even assuming the companies are actually filtering it, if you really insist on extra-purified water beyond state and federal standards, that home filtration system will pay for itself very quickly. Even “convenience” arguments of having easy bottles of water at stores and shops quickly collapose under a 7000 times markup. What about taste? Hard to believe, but the effect is mostly psychological. I wonder if you could tell the difference between bottled and tap water in a blind survey? Which one actually tastes better? Watch the Penn and Teller clip above for some fun “taste tests” that drive the point home.

The irony of all this is that, although devastating on many public relations levels for Pepsi and the bottled water industry, this revelation is actually a surprisingly good thing from a public heath perspective. And we’ll overlook the cost in oil and waste to make and keep all those plastic bottles around. While it may be criminal that I’m paying obscene overhead for presumed purity and convenience, thank goodness they are at least using United States tap water!

Consider the alternative.

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