Should We Hand Over Control Of America’s Drinking Water To Dr. Pepper, Pepsi or Coke?
Written by: Joseph Erbentraut, Senior Reporter – The Huffington Post
The bottled water industry is in the midst of a banner year. Bottled water sales are set to outstrip soda sales in the U.S. for the first time since the Beverage Marketing Corporation began tracking the industry in the 1970’s, according to data the firm released earlier this month.
On one hand, this could be viewed as a public health victory, especially since industry leaders say rising health concerns linked with the consumption of sugary, calorie-laden sodas are largely driving the trend.
But there is also a more potentially disturbing explanation for bottled water’s surge in popularity, these same leaders say: Consumers are fearful of what’s coming out of their taps, thanks to public health crisis like the ongoing situation in Flint, Michigan, and America’s immense and underfunded water infrastructure challenges more broadly.
Critics of the bottled water industry point out that these increased sales represent the privatization of something that has generally been recognized as a public good. There is an incredible amount of waste generated along the way, and plenty of thorny questions about the ethics of water sourcing come up.
One of those critics is Gay Hawkins, a professor at Western Sydney University and the co-author of the 2015 book Plastic Water: The Social And Material Life of Bottled Water.
There is “no good news” in letting beverage companies ― like Coca-Cola and Pepsi, which each benefit from the rise in sales through their own water brands — take control of America’s drinking water, Hawkins argues.
The Huffington Post recently spoke with the professor about what can be done.
Were you surprised to see this recent news that bottled water sales are surging past soda in the U.S.?
No, that is playing out everywhere. The way the beverage companies see it, there is a major attack on their market for selling dangerously oversweetened beverages. The way in which they respond to that is the introduction of a substitute market, which is water. All of this sort of implicitly says, OK, if you’re not reaching for a Coke, reach for a branded water instead. They don’t want to see their overall market share decline, so they’ve had to create other beverage lines that will cope with this.
I think it’s depressing to the extreme to think that there could be any positive hype about people reaching for water rather than Coke if you acknowledge the fact that they’re still reaching for a plastic bottle. If you want access to drinking water, you shouldn’t have to access that through a single-use [polyethylene terephthalate, the most common type of plastic used in water bottles] bottle, which is creating phenomenal waste problems around the world. If we’re committing to public health, what states and governments should be doing is intensifying people’s access to free water in public. We should see more water fountains everywhere, and they should be clean and readily available all over urban space. They should really be providing a genuine alternative to sweetened beverages.
This is a tragedy, a failure of governing and a failure of the state. Flint should be ashamed of itself for taking taxes from people and not being able to meet its basic minimal obligation — to provide its people with the means of life which is safe public water, of course.
Beverage companies see a state failure as a market opportunity. If people are losing trust in public water, they say, “Here is our chance to insert branded bottled water into this state of uncertainty and make people think this is the only water people can trust.” I think this is directly connected to the fact that beverage companies are creating doubt and manipulating public disputes about water quality to their own advantage.
Let’s face it, it’s pretty hard for a beverage company to turn water into water. We’re getting access to water in a cheap, sustainable way through a massive, networked infrastructure of pipes. Sure, that costs a lot of money to provide, but it’s nothing like the kind of money that goes into making single-use bottles. You have to do an immense amount of work to turn water into a commodity. Exploiting insecurity and doubt about existing forms of supply and generating incredible branding strategies that create all these new qualities for water — “untouched,” organic and all the other bullshit — help create this brand platform that turns water into something that radically differentiates it from the ordinary old stuff coming out of the tap. But really, it’s still just water.
How does the U.S. compare to other countries in terms of this? Situations like Flint aside, why are we leading the way on this trend?
I don’t want to be an expert on the U.S., but it’s pretty hard to promote government as a good thing there. It’s crazy the kind of anti-government sentiments I’ve heard from the U.S. All of us couldn’t function every day without government. Roads, traffic lights, being able to turn on the tap — all these things that we take for granted connect us as a community.
Government creates and maintains the common interest of the greater good. Water is at the heart of that and is something that should not be privatized. It’s something that we need to share and we need to collaborate in protecting. I think we need a much more vigorous defense of the public good and why governments matter, and why governments are central to protecting the commons, and water is part of the commons.
Joseph Erbentraut covers promising innovations and challenges in the areas of food and water. In addition, Erbentraut explores the evolving ways Americans are identifying and defining themselves. Follow Erbentraut on Twitter at @robojojo. Tips? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.