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The spiritual bankruptcy of bottled water

Selling out a national resource, at 75 billion bottles every year.

Marina Bolotnikova is a deputy editor for Vox’s Future Perfect section. Before joining Vox, she reported on factory farming for national outlets including the Guardian, the Intercept, and elsewhere.

Text: “If you grew up in the US, you might recognize these bottles. The labels conjure the sublime beauty and abundance of America’s outdoors.” Drawing of bottled water with a bubble on one that reads: “Ice Mountain, the brand extracted from springs in Michigan, was ‘inspired by the glaciers that once covered the northern US’”
Text: “Bottled water consumption, in the US and globally, has grown dramatically in the last decade. Americans drank the equivalent of 342 standard individual bottles per person in 2020, up from approximately 210 bottles in 2010.” with a drawing of charts that illustrate this, using water droplets to represent 10 bottles. 
“A lot of bottled water, like Coke’s Dasani, comes from the tap. But some, like Arrowhead, is pumped directly from natural springs. Called spring water, this allows companies to sell the idea of nature and purity. And drinkable water is far from available to everyone. In 2016, the year that Michigan declared a state of emergency over Flint’s lead-contaminated water, bottled water outsold soda.  The more we distrust the water from our faucets, the more bottled water we consume.”
“Bottled water wasn’t inevitable. It became a viable business opportunity after the invention of the PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottle in 1973.  Lightweight, unbreakable bottles revolutionized the beverage industry, making it possible to easily ship billions of individually packaged drinks. The health-conscious consumer was on the rise, too. Marketers warned people that they were at risk of dehydration, so they’d better always have bottled water on hand.”
“Americans now buy an unfathomable 75 billion plastic water bottles per year, according to the Beverage Marketing Corporation, and that number grows by billions more each year. The vast majority of them end up in landfills. Bottled water companies make pledges to use more recycled plastic, but it’s nowhere near enough to offset the growth of plastic waste.” Drawing of a garbage dump.
“About 8 million metric tons of plastic enters the ocean per year, most of it trapped along coastlines, buried in sediment, and elsewhere in the ocean that is not well known.” Image: the earth’s oceans from space.
“The problem goes even deeper than plastic; it’s about who owns our water. During the Flint water crisis, the city’s majority-Black residents were paying some of the highest bills in the country for poisoned water. A few hours away, Nestlé, the Swiss multinational that until recently owned America’s most iconic spring water brands, was pumping water for its Ice Mountain label virtually for free.” Drawing of a faucet pouring black water over Detroit.
“Indigenous communities have often led the fight to protect ecosystems from corporate control.” Drawing of a person reading a newspaper with the headline: “1836 treaty puts Michigan tribes at center of Nestle water bid”
A man saying “What is important is not the value of the resource solely, whether that be water, whether that be plants, whether that be fish. It’s also the relationship that we as tribal people have with those resources.” label: Frank Beaver, the natural resources department director for the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, and a member of the Grand Traverse Band.
“Commodifying water can be seen as a kind of desecration. Nestlé’s North American water brands were recently sold to private equity firms and given a new name: BlueTriton Brands, named for an ancient Greek god of the sea. BlueTriton’s water operation is extraordinarily unpopular with the people of Michigan. More than 80,000 people submitted public comments against the corporation’s plan to pump more water, compared to only 75 in favor. In 2018, the state gave them a permit anyway.”
“When capitalism and democracy disagree,” Beaver says, “it seems like democracy loses a lot and capitalism wins.” 
“Flint had no democratic representation because they’d been placed under emergency financial management by the state. That was when the city started sourcing water from the corrosive Flint River, which led to the water crisis.  “I had water coming out my tap looking like straight Hennessy,” remembers Flint resident and organizer Nayyirah Shariff. “I had rashes. A lot of folks didn’t know that city council was powerless.” 
“Bottled water has a way of making itself seem like the natural solution in times of crisis, and Flint became dependent on it. Companies including Nestlé, Coke, and Pepsi donated millions of bottles to the city, and the state paid to provide residents free bottled water.”
“We were advocating for cisterns and water buffaloes. The governor decided that this was what our recovery was going to look like. And it was extremely insulting,” Shariff says. 
““Failure to invest in our public water system has contributed to the loss of trust in that system,” says water expert Peter Gleick from The Pacific Institute. “And in the meantime, the bottled water industry capitalizes on that lack of trust.”  
Bottled water alone isn’t responsible for our plastic crisis or the breakdown in local water systems. But it has fundamentally redefined our relationship with this essential, finite resource. 23. “Nobody owns water,” says Michigan-based environmental lawyer Jim Olson. “If you own land, you do not own the water.” Yet by taking water and selling it back to us, bottled water makers have staked a claim on what belongs to us all.