Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Water Water Everywhere

If we could take a group of folks from the 1950s and plunk them down in 2010 Los Angeles, the first things they'd say after looking around is: "Whatever happened to chrome on cars and hats on men?" followed by, "Why does everyone carry a bottle of water? Did those Commies poison our reservoirs?"

Well, we'd answer, bottled water is convenient. Also, water is good for you and bottled water is better for you than tap water. Not to mention that there's a lot of status involved taking a swig from your $20 bottle of Prix Eleve designer water, collected by hand in the Alps by an order of monks.

And, no, the Commies threw in the towel decades ago.

We'd be wrong on several counts. While it is healthy to stay hydrated, what we're drinking in a lot of cases is from the tap, sometimes filtered, sometimes not.

And the status factor has gone the way of bling.

Indeed, the popularity of bottled water is, in a word, evaporating.

Environmentalists loathe bottled water because they say nearly 90 percent of the bottles are not recycled and wind up in landfills where it takes thousands of years for the plastic to decompose.

Consumers, trying to survive a lousy economy, have come to realize that they're paying good money for something that can be had for free. Sales of reusable aluminum and stainless steel water bottles are up.

If that's not enough, some members of the religious community complain that clean drinking water, like air, is a God-given resource that shouldn't be packaged and sold.

Add it all up and you get bottled water sales that dropped in 2009 for the first time in five years. Yes, folks, bottled water is becoming the new cigarette.

We can trace this change of attitude to the Australian town of Bundanoon, a hamlet of about 2,500 south of Sydney. It seems the citizens there became angry a few years back when, according to published accounts, a beverage company announced plans to build a water extraction plant in town.

Residents faced the prospect of an outsider taking their water, sending it off to the big city for processing and then selling it back to them. The town became so incensed it voted to ban the end product.

About the same time, according to anti-bottle activists, "one of the dumbest moves in advertising history" occurred when high-end brand Fiji started a campaign intended to tout its water which is imported from the tropics.

The advertising copy read: "The label says Fiji because it's not bottled in Cleveland."

Well, the people of Cleveland, the victims of many slings and arrows over the years, did not take kindly to the campaign. So Cleveland Public Utilities director Julius Ciaccia had the local water tested against the bottled stuff. Fiji water had 6.31 micrograms of arsenic per liter; the city tap had zero. The company disputed the findings, but change was in the air.

The cities of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Santa Barbara and Salt Lake City have asked employees not to use bottled water or banned city spending on it. Chicago added a 5-cent tax to each bottle.

Famed California chef Alice Waters banned bottled water at her restaurant, Chez Panisse, according to a CNN report. In New York, celebrity chef Mario Batali's fanciest joint, Del Posto, banned the bottle. The idea became fashionable enough that an article in the online magazine Slate talked about the "reverse snob appeal" of tap water.

The irony of all this is that the largest consumers of bottled water are Americans, who need it the least. The great majority of our tap water meets EPA drinking-water standards, which regulate the levels of roughly 90 different contaminants, including germs such as giardia, heavy metals such as lead and dozens of industrial chemicals.

Like Hummers, 3-D TVs and infomercials, Americans are attracted to things they don't need. Bottled water is just another example.

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