'Bottled and Sold' Author Visits USD, Discusses Water Issues

'Bottled and Sold' Author Visits USD, Discusses Water Issues


Peter Gleick had just spent 45 minutes sharing interesting data, stories and information stemming from his book, “Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water,” when a student asked him a curious question.

She noticed a glass of water perched on top of the lectern that he’d been sipping from during his talk on the Shiley Theatre stage.

“Is that tap water?” she asked.

“Yes it is,” Gleick replied. “I only drink tap water.”

The exchange was lighthearted, but it reinforced Gleick’s commitment that drinking tap water is acceptable, safe and, perhaps, safer than bottled water.

Tap Water vs. Bottled Water

Gleick, a scientist and founder of the Oakland, Calif.-based nonprofit Pacific Institute, focuses attention on creating and advancing solutions for global water problems. He’s a tap water proponent. He’s focused on ways to increase accessibility to clean, safe water in a world where millions of people don’t.

“Bottled water is a commodity. We live in a society that commodifies things and operates on market capitalism principles,” he said. “I don’t think bottled water will disappear and I don’t necessarily think it should because under certain circumstances it does have a role to play. What I would like, though, is for people to have a better understanding of the critical importance of our tap water system and to know about the importance of maintaining it, expanding it and replicating it for the rest of the world that doesn’t have access to safe drinking water.”

The bottled water business is a juggernaut. Companies throughout the nation exist. Major soft drink companies have their own brands and claim a significant piece of the market. Gleick displayed a Beverage Marketing Council graphic indicating that in 1976 there was little to no bottled water consumption. In 2014, United States bottled water consumption averaged 35 gallons per person.

While acknowledging bottled water’s ample market presence, he is strongly against tactics used to promote it. Consumers are conditioned to be fearful or skeptical of tap water, of “something they can’t see,” while they, in turn, advertise and market bottled water as an image of making a person healthier, sexier or more stylish.

“The target is not to get rid of bottled water,” Gleick said, “The target is to marginalize it, make it become a niche, become a product people can choose to buy, but with more awareness of what they’re doing.”

He quoted an International Bottled Water Association statement touting its safety and quality and then shared a countering view from Corporate Accountability International. He spoke of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) being regulators of bottled water and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulating tap water. Interestingly, while standards are similar, they’re not identical. Gleick noted loopholes in bottled water regulations.

“Any water-quality law is only as good as the level of protection, frequency of the inspections, independence of the tests and effectiveness of enforcement,” he stated. “On all counts, bottled water protections are inadequate.”

The environmental impact of the bottles used is another concern. Plastic bottles contain harmful elements, waste energy and are often not recycled properly or efficiently. “Our production and consumption of bottled water has serious environmental, economic and social costs,” he said.

Interdisciplinary Discussion, Action

Gleick’s book was published in 2010, but it is a historical and relevant reference. Five years later, Gleick said there’s been evidence of positive action.

“I do think the conversation about bottled water has changed somewhat. I do think there is more awareness. Some cities have begun to ban sales of certain kinds of water like in Concord, Massachusetts. The city of Chicago has imposed a tax on bottled water sales that raises revenue to address some of the negative impacts of selling bottled water in terms of the effects it’s had on waste and waste management. I think there’s growing conversation about commercial beverages in general, soda versus bottled water versus tap water. I also think bottled water companies have stepped up and tried to address some issues such as making water bottles with less plastic, companies have contributed to recycling campaigns and the nature of advertising for bottled water has changed a little bit.”

Coming to USD’s campus offered a chance for Gleick’s interdisciplinary vision for water issues to be on display at USD. Prior to his evening talk about “Bottled and Sold,” the 2015-16 USD Just Read! featured book, he met with USD faculty, staff and students.

“Water is our most important resource,” he said. “It’s a resource that’s tied to everything else: it’s tied to energy, food production, health of our ecosystems. Water brings together thinking about a lot of different kinds of problems. I’m a scientist by training but water is not just a science issue or a hydraulic issue. It’s an economic, social, political and cultural issue.”

Sandra Sgoutas-Emch, professor of psychology and director of the Center for Educational Excellence, agreed. Having a book that examines an issue with social justice impact “is symbolic, to me, for what a USD education is all about.”

An Nguyen, a senior international relations major and intern for USD’s Office of Sustainability, said Gleick’s talk fortified her thoughts about bottled water and water issues as a whole. “He provided [data] numbers that makes me even more confident to talk about why we shouldn’t have [bottled water]. He brought it all together. Water is a right. It’s a human right. Water shouldn’t be commoditized to this level.”

Student Activism

The USD Just Read! Program, picked by CEE, connects with the USD Changemaker Hub’s campuswide attention on water, including the theme for its annual spring entrepreneurial Changemaker Challenge student competition.

Gleick’s visit was another opportunity to see where college students are in terms of their awareness, questions they have and if they’re thinking about solutions.

“Students, in general, are more aware of these issues. There have been campus movements about improving access to water drinking fountains, building more fountains and handing out refillable water bottles,” he said. “Students are the ones who will be living in the future, this is their world now and the impact of what we do will be felt by them, their children and the next generations. What students choose to do is a personal choice, but the good news for water is that there are so many things to be done and there are many ways students can get involved. You don’t have to have a certain degree to be part of it. Almost anything will allow students to participate in a discussion about the future of water.”

— Ryan T. Blystone