Bloomsbury; 248 pages; $24.99
Book Review by Abe Streep
This was supposed to be the year when the bottled water industry got smacked down.
In 2007, organizations such as Corporate Accountability International lashed out at single-serving bottled water, labeling exotic brands like Fiji and Voss as some of our worst eco-offenders, thanks to the petroleum in the bottles' plastic and the oil required to ship the product.
The news media followed suit, and the ensuing public backlash was harsh: City governments from San Francisco to Santa Fe outlawed the spending of tax dollars on bottled water; Alice Waters dropped bubbling Italian Santa Lucia from the Chez Panisse menu.
Shamed bottlers engaged in a greener-than-thou public relations battle that at times bordered on hilarity - Nestle shrank the packaging of its Poland Spring brand and started shipping it in biofuel-powered trucks, while favorite media whipping boy Fiji water announced plans to go carbon negative. ("Smith! What's better than carbon neutral?" "Carbon negative, sir!"). Ordering bottled water at a restaurant has become a sin akin to wearing a fur coat.
So why are we binging on more bottles than ever? According to environmental journalist Elizabeth Royte, Americans spend more than $10 billion per year on bottled water - more than we do on beer. Can our priorities really be that out of whack? And when did we decide it was OK to pay extra for something that flows from our faucets?
These are the questions Royte, author of the 2005 waste manifesto "Garbage Land," tackles in "Bottlemania," a timely, densely reported but also very readable and distressing examination of the way we drink. (Disclosure: Royte has been a correspondent at Outside magazine, where I work.) Royte's reporting takes her from the Kansas City Water Works treatment facility, where engineers turn herbicide-laden Missouri River sludge into some of the country's finest tap water, to Coca-Cola's filtering operation in Queens, N.Y., where water from the municipal supply becomes Dasani. (A Coke company man brags, in earnest, "You could take mud and end up with Dasani.")
But "Bottlemania's" ground zero is Fryeburg, Maine, a small town on the New Hampshire border where people take their water seriously. As they should: The town plays host to a continuing water rights battle between the Nestle corporation and some angry Mainers. At issue is a very productive and clean local aquifer that Nestle uses to fill bottles for its rapidly expanding Poland Spring brand while the Fryeburg residents cry exploitation.
It's difficult to disagree with the locals after reading this book. The Swiss corporation arrives in 2004, and by 2006 is pumping some 800,000 gallons of Fryeburg water a day into bottles of Poland Spring, the best-selling springwater in America. Meanwhile, residents don't see much in the way of returns, besides a lot of trucks huffing through town. When the company buys up land in a neighboring town to pump more water, locals take Nestle to court over the legality of the pumps. Nestle's argument: Not being allowed to tap and sell the local water supply will cause the corporation, which made $7.46 billion in profits in 2006, "economic hardship." Guess who wins?
Royte's storytelling lends the small-town drama gravitas, and the indignant locals don't disappoint. Take plaid-sporting curmudgeon extraordinaire Howard Dearborn. A wealthy, 88-year-old retired engineer, Dearborn leads the opposition to Nestle, contending that the company has ruined his beloved lake by draining the springs that feed it. At one point, Dearborn holds a sort of anti-Nestle Boston Tea Party, in which he pays Fryeburg residents to dump bottles of Poland Spring into the lake. He also threatens to throw Royte - hardly a Nestle sympathizer - in the water when she asks to see the evidence of the lake's demise.
Through the microcosm of Fryeburg, it becomes clear that this book is not about figuring out which form of water is better, tap or bottled. (But Royte does address the issue, and the answer isn't exactly clear-cut. According to the book, your local municipal supply may contain traces of arsenic, the fertilizer by-product nitrate, sewage, gas additives, herbicide, shampoo residue, hormones or maybe a little perchlorate - a rocket fuel ingredient. The EPA-unregulated, astronomically expensive bottled stuff? Different brands come with different levels of purity - Perrier is high in nitrates - and the verdict's still out on how much those polyethylene terephthalate (PET) water bottles leach into your drink. Royte's advice: Go with tap and a filter.)
The real issue here is the commodification and manipulation of our most essential natural resource. The reader comes away with the creepy notion that every last clean drop on the planet is already accounted for - either being muddied with pollutants and then zapped with disinfectants by municipal systems, or pumped and sold as a luxury item. When Royte writes, "(I)n fifty years we may look back at the campaign to control Maine's groundwater as a defining moment in history," it doesn't seem that much of a stretch. OK, maybe that's a bit of a stretch. But this is a dirty business, indeed. As Royte puts it, "So there is s- in the water; I'd have to make peace with that."
Abe Streep is an associate editor at Outside magazine. The review first appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on June 25, 2008. The opinions expressed by book reviewers in Natural~Specialty Foods Memo's (NSFM) Book Review Memo are the writers, and are not necessarily shared by NSFM.