In one of the biggest marketing coups in history, the beverage industry has somehow managed to convince consumers to pay good money, to the tune of $5 billion in 2008, for a product that's widely available for free (or nearly so). What's more, a close look at the labels of some of the most popular brands reveals the words, "municipal sources." Which means they're peddling essentially the same stuff that comes out of your tap. It's a lower-latitude version of the "selling ice to Eskimos" business model.
After two decades of phenomenal growth, the bottled water market has declined slightly from a peak of 8.8 billion gallons in 2007. The fizzling economy is one factor, but there's also been a strong push by environmental groups to publicize the serious problems caused by producing, shipping and disposing of all that expensive water. Partner each bottle you drink with a quarter the amount of petroleum, and you'll get a rough idea of the energy and materials required to extract, process, bottle, transport, and dispose of it.
The producers of a new documentary, Tapped, are hoping to seize the momentum of a nascent cultural shift away from bottled water. They tapped a formidable travel budget to bring back alarming stories from around the country: Rural Maine, where Nestlé wrested the town of Fryeburg's water supply for its Poland Springs brand; the trash-strewn beaches of Hawaii, near the site of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the ever-growing oceanic dead zone swirling with untold tons of toxic plastic junk; the Gulf Coast of Texas, where a petrochemical plant that makes plastic for water bottles is suspected of sickening local residents; and here in the Triangle, where a water bottling plant refused to scale back production despite dangerously low reservoir levels.
Producer/ director Stephanie Soechtig's background is in television, which shows in the film's short-attention-span editing and overbearing sound effects. But its also has some hard-hitting journalism: Soechtig doesn't back down, for example, when an interview with an FDA representative in Washington turns unexpectedly combative. And ample screen time is given to Frederick vom Saal, a biology professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia who has published controversial, yet independently replicated and potentially far-reaching studies about the toxic effects of bisphenol A. Also known as BPA, the chemical is a component of many plastic products, including water cooler jugs and baby bottles.
BPA leaches from plastic in amounts that were initially judged too small to have any effect. But vom Saal's research shows that even extremely small amounts can mimic the effects of strongly disruptive hormones. "Bisphenol A is the poster child chemical that is going to dismantle the entire regulatory process and demand a reanalysis of all chemicals," says vom Saal. That's a strong claim, but recent developments seem to back him up. In late March, the EPA formally listed BPA as a "chemical of concern," mirroring an FDA report released in Janaury that expressed "some concern" over BPA's effects on fetuses, infants and children.
The producers of Tapped came to the Triangle in 2007, in the midst of a withering drought. Pepsi Bottling Ventures was continuing to draw more than 400,000 gallons a day for its Aquafina brand even as Falls Lake, Raleigh's primary water source, shriveled. In the film, N.C. State University Associate Professor (and occasional Indy contributor) Cat Warren, along with Durham City Councilman Eugene Brown, describes a situation in which local governments were powerless to get the plant to ease its production. While residents were urged to stop watering lawns and washing cars, the plant was "bottling municipal water that then they were selling back, at the very point we were running out," says Warren.
When rising global temperatures and increasing demand are making water an ever more precious natural resource, there are innumerable water-related issues the filmmakers could have chosen to explore. To their credit, they didn't.
Tapped keeps its focus squarely on one issue: getting consumers to ditch the plastic single-use bottle. It's impossible to watch without feeling nostalgia for the days when the choice in drinking water was the kitchen or bathroom sink. A return to the habits of 30 years ago, when people got their water from taps, fountains and the occasional canteen, would be a setback for the beverage industry. But it would be a leap forward for the health of our bodies and bank accounts, and take a big trash and carbon load off the planet.