Americans spent $21 billion on bottled water in 2009. It doesn’t seem like an astonishing sum of money – about $65 per person, $1.25 a week. But in the context of water, $21 billion is huge. Consider, for instance, what Americans spend for all the water delivered to their homes – 350 gallons per family per day, 365 days a year. The water bill comes to about $412 a year. Which means we spend $46 billion a year on all the household water we use all year long— to run the morning shower, to boil the pasta, to water the lawn. As a nation, we spend $46 billion for a year’s water, always on, whenever we need it. And we spend another $21 billion – almost half as much – for bottled water, for an amount of water that wouldn’t get us through eight hours of water use at home on any given day. But there’s an even more arresting comparison. We spend about $29 billion a year maintaining our entire water system in the United States – the drinking water treatment plants, the pump stations, the pipes in the ground, the wastewater treatment plants. So as a nation, we spend very nearly as much on water delivered in small crushable plastic bottles as we do on sustaining the entire water system of the country.
We’re moving 1 billion bottles of water around a week in ships, trains, and trucks in the United States alone. That’s a weekly convoy equivalent to 37,800 18-wheelers delivering water. (Water weighs 8.33 pounds a gallon. It’s so heavy you can’t fill an 18-wheeler with bottled water – you have to leave empty space.) Meanwhile, of course, one out of six people in the world has no dependable, safe drinking water. The global economy has contrived to deny the most fundamental element of life to 1 billion people, while delivering to us in the developed world an array of water “varieties” from around the globe, not one of which we actually need.
Bottled water is the final flowering of the old water culture. Nothing says indulgence, in fact, like paying for something you don’t need to pay for, like paying for something you don’t need. Superficially, it looks like a somewhat silly triumph for capitalism – look what really smart, creative people can do with something as utterly pedestrian as water. In fact, it’s a reminder of exactly the opposite – the market has created very persuasive solutions for water problems that don’t exist, while failing to find any solutions for real water problems.
This is old news, but still…
FIJI Water is a miniature miracle of the modern global economy – water from an aquifer on the isolated north coast of Fiji’s main island, bottled in a state-of-the-art factory that fills and packs more than a million bottles of water a day, water that then makes its way by truck, cargo container, ship, and even the Panama Canal, to the hippest clubs and restaurants in Los Angeles (5,520 miles from Fiji) and Miami Beach (7,480 miles from Fiji). Meanwhile, more than half the residents of the nation of Fiji do not themselves have safe, reliable drinking water. Which means it is easier for the typical American living in Beverly Hills or Miami or Manhattan to get a drink of safe, pure, refreshing Fijian water than it is for most people in Fiji.
The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water [Amazon]