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The Tragic Cycle of Bottled Water

The iconic image of governmental failure is the arrival of corporate-branded bottled water.

The iconic image of governmental failure is the arrival of corporate-branded bottled water.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHS) recently told the people of Benton Harbor — a predominantly Black city in southwest Michigan — to stop drinking, cooking or brushing their teeth with local tap water. “Out of an abundance of caution,” state officials instead recommended using bottled water to avoid the toxic taint of lead flowing through the city’s water system and, ultimately, into residents’ homes and their bodies.

The warning, along with 20,000 cases of bottled water, came approximately three years after testing first revealed lead levels beyond the Environmental Protection Agency’s action level of 15 parts per billion (ppb). The “action level” is the legal threshold that triggers regulatory action. In fact, little was done while the town’s drinking water “failed to meet standards for six consecutive sampling periods over the last three yearsafter that first test. This all happened three years after Michigan added a “Lead and Copper Rule” to the Michigan Safe Drinking Water Act in 2018.

That rule, added in response to the Flint water crisis, required the “removal of all lead service lines in Michigan” and “the lowering of the 15 ppb” standard to “12 ppb on January 1, 2025.” Perhaps most galling for the people of Benton Harbor, the rule promises that the “State will work closely with local water authorities to rapidly respond to any test results showing high lead levels, including enforcing steps to lower lead levels that are required by State regulation.”

Unfortunately for the approximately 10,000 residents of Benton Harbor, it wasn’t until September 30 of this year, a week prior to the official warning, that, according to local TV station FOX17, MDHS finally began “distributing cases of bottled water to anyone living in Benton Harbor.” It wasn’t until October 11, five days after the aforementioned warning, that they offered “free lead blood tests for children” and “home inspections for anyone who shows signs of lead in their system.”

State officials and volunteers have since poured case after case of “free” bottled water into the increasingly furious town. Some residents waited more than an hour and a half to pick up potable water that should be readily available in their homes. But much like the infamous story of lead contamination in the city of Flint, located 180 miles to the east of Benton Harbor, the iconic image of governmental failure is the arrival of corporate-branded bottled water. Yet again, it is bottled water to the rescue, offering residents perhaps the most basic thing a functioning local government is supposed to provide: clean, safe water.

Lead and Irony

The irony doesn’t stop there, though, since much of the bottled water we drink is just packaged tap water. A 2018 study by Food & Water Watch found that private companies pull 64 percent of their bottled water from municipal tap water sources. If it is filtered, like Coca-Cola’s Dasani ($1.06 billion in 2020 sales) and Pepsi’s Aquafina ($1.06 billion in 2020 sales), the “process removes beneficial minerals such as calcium and magnesium,” which, Montana State University exercise physiology professor Dan Heil told the Los Angeles Times, “does not support the premise that pure water is healthier or better for the body than tap water with naturally occurring minerals.”

Despite that fact, International Bottled Water Association’s Vice President of Communications Jill Culora assured grocery industry magazine The Shelby Report that “consumer preference for healthy hydration is really good news for public health.” A January 2021 market analysis by Grandview Research sees “rising consumer consciousness towards the health benefits of consuming bottled water” driving “market growth over the forecast period” of 2021-2028. The bullish report also notes that “bottled water rather than ordinary water … seems to have hit a sweet spot with health-conscious buyers.”

Somehow, the irony that “health-conscious” Americans find themselves ever more reliant on often microplastic-tainted, chemical-leaching bottles of water hasn’t quite registered in a nation struggling to replace a crumbling water infrastructure of up to 12 million lead pipes currently delivering potentially poisonous water to nearly 22 million people. Meanwhile, private corporations raid public water sources or simply filter the tap water many Americans often needlessly refuse to drink before its packaged it in petrochemically produced plastic and sold back to them for as much as 2,000 times the price of what flows from their faucets.

The fact that this corporately packaged water repeatedly bails out lead-tainted systems is all the more difficult to swallow given that it is the product of what amounts to the de facto privatization of the public’s water. Not coincidentally, Michigan has been at the center of both the lead crisis and water privatization.

Nestlé’s Bitter Harvest

In 2017, the state of Michigan ended a subsidy that paid about two-thirds of Flint’s residents’ water bills, according to a Flint resident who spoke to Michigan Public Radio’s Steve Carmody, “for water that didn’t meet federal quality standards dating back to 2014.” At the same time, the Swiss-based Nestlé S.A.’s Michigan operation was humming along approximately 123 miles to the northeast in rural Mecosta County. Bloomberg Businessweek reported on the venture, which was pouring “local spring water into 8-ounce to 2.5-gallon containers” with most of the lines running “24/7, each pumping out 500 to 1,200 bottles per minute.” Sixty percent of the water was delivered by a 12-mile pipeline leading back to Mecosta’s springs. The rest was trucked in 40 miles from neighboring Osceola County. They churned out up to 3.5 million bottles every day.

That year, Nestlé’s bottled water business racked up $7.7 billion in worldwide sales, with, the report noted, “more than $343 million of it coming from Michigan, where the company bottles Ice Mountain Natural Spring Water and Pure Life, its purified water line.” Amazingly, Nestlé only needed to pay a nominal $200 annual paperwork fee for each of its bottling facilities to secure the rights to extract, package, sell and export Michigan’s water. So, while the people of Flint and, we now know, the people of Benton Harbor and Hamtramck and Wayne, among perhaps yet untold others, had varying degrees of lead-tainted water flowing into their homes, Nestlé was paying next to nothing to pull “millions of gallons” of Michiganders’ precious resource and sell it for millions in profit. Not only was this a de facto privatization of a vital public resource, but the people of Michigan were essentially subsidizing Nestlé’s operations with dirt-cheap liquid gold.

It’s a profitable model Nestlé replicated around the United States.

Mythical Purity

California’s San Bernardino National Forest is located about 74 miles to the east of notoriously thirsty but endemically water-starved Los Angeles. Home to Big Bear Lake and Strawberry Creek, it is also a primary source of Nestlé’s “almost mythically pure” Arrowhead-brand mountain spring water. Sunset Magazine found that Nestlé took “an average of 62.6 million gallons of water from the San Bernardino Forest each year from 1947 to 2015,” but it paid just $524 annually under a since-expired 1978 permit. Despite the expiration, Nestlé continued to pay the paltry sum until an outcry from citizens and activists in 2017 led the U.S. Forest Service to issue a new permit in 2018 with a new annual fee of a mere $2,000.

However, on April 23 of this year, the California State Water Resources Control Board hit Nestlé with a draft “cease and desist” order claiming it is illegally diverting millions of gallons of water in excess of its permitted allowance of 7.26 acre feet of water annually, which translates to approximately 2.3 million gallons. Instead, Nestlé slurped up 180-acre feet of water (about 58 million gallons) from the Strawberry Creek headlands in 2020. Nestlé’s Arrowhead is still slurping and profiting. Months later, the draft letter still awaits final approval from the California State Water Resources Control Board.

For its Pure Life brand, Nestlé taps the municipal city water systems of Sacramento, Livermore, Pasadena, Ontario, Los Angeles and Cabazon. In Sacramento, Pure Life and other bottled water companies pay $1 per 100 cubic feet of city water, just like residents and local businesses. The main difference, says Sunset, is that “the benefit does not return to the community as most bottles are exported outside the local community.” And, of course, they enjoy a profitable markup.

Pure Life was also pulling 35 million gallons per year from the sun-baked city of Phoenix, Arizona, until it pulled the plug on the controversial plant after less than three years of operation. To Sunset’s point regarding Pure Life’s unbeneficial Sacramento operation, the $35 million of investment Nestlé made in its Phoenix operation only translated into just 15 jobs lost when they closed the spigot on that plant in 2019.

The irony in a story filled with ironies, is that both California and Arizona, and Phoenix in particular, have been coping with climate-related droughts that increasingly restrict the flow of water to farms and, over the last year, to more and more residents. With the climate crisis moving apace, it seems at best counterproductive to allow corporations to bottle potable water and repackage it in oil-based plastic, which is on-pace to produce more emissions than coal by 2030. Even worse, those plastic bottles of water must be transported through an oil-driven supply chain so it can be purchased at a premium and hauled back into homes by consumers who could and should be accessing it safely and efficiently through their taps. That the public’s water is being tapped for corporate packaging and resale for a tidy profit in water-scarce, drought-affected regions is sadly emblematic of a parasitic process of privatization that, in the long run, seems both foolhardy and wholly unsustainable.

Sharks in the Water

As Bloomberg Businessweek pointed out in its 2017 exposé, Nestlé’s predatory operation indentified “areas with weak water regulations or lobbies to enfeeble laws,” thus opening the door, and the spigot, to this de facto privatization process.

But Nestlé is not alone.

As Consumer Reports noted in 2020, “a 262,000-square-foot Coca-Cola manufacturing facility … buzzed with activity” on the west side of Detroit while many other businesses were forced to suspend operations in response to COVID-19 shutdowns. Coca-Cola’s Dasani brand churned out its profitable bottled water, which earns the company over $1 billion in annual sales, by “purchasing, treating, and bottling municipal water before selling it at a significant upcharge to consumers.” Pepsi’s Aquafina brand follows the same profitable model for the water it bottled in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, with, Consumer Reports found, a markup that’s “around 133 times greater” than its purchase price from public water systems.

Back in Detroit, Consumer Reports also found that Coca-Cola paid an average cost of $0.01 per gallon for municipal water. After running it through a purification filter and packaging it, they then charged a wholesale price of $1.33 for that same gallon of water. Amazingly, this markup was not enough to keep Coca-Cola from failing to pay its bill. While residents risked having their water cut off if they were $150 in arrears or 60 days late in paying their bill, as happened to some 2,800 homes at the start of the pandemic, Coca-Cola continually fell behind on its bill, at one point reaching $287, 250 in overdue payments. But unlike cash-strapped Detroiters who saw their water shut off, delinquent Coca-Cola was allowed to keep on tapping the municipal water supply unabated. In response to Consumer Reports’ damning exposé, the Detroit Water & Sewerage Department explained the delinquency away as the result of “errors on the city’s part, including address mailing issues.”

When Sunset Magazine looked deeply into the “plundering” of California’s water, they found CG Roxane, the company that owns Crystal Geyser. The company generated $36 million in 2020 by pouring 42 million gallons of water into plastic bottles. Their water is partially sourced from “groundwater and well water from Weed,” a small city near the base of drought-affected Mount Shasta, and from Olancha, an unincorporated town near the Los Angeles aqueduct. The aqueduct has funneled water 233 miles from the Owens River to Los Angeles since 1913.

The company was attracted in part by Olancha’s reliable groundwater, known to persist even during drought years. The problem is that it contained naturally occurring arsenic. So Crystal Geyser filtered it to meet federal safety standards for drinking water. For 15 years the company illegally stored the hazardous byproduct of this process in “the Arsenic Pond,” thus endangering the “area’s groundwater and wildlife,” according to a Department of Justice investigation. Crystal Geyser also dumped “23,000 gallons of their toxic, potentially carcinogenic water into California sewers.” As Sunset bluntly put it, “the cost to the company is a $5 million fine, which is not considered a threat to their business.”

Nestlé Relents

After years of controversy and battles with local activists, Nestlé S.A. finally relented and sold Nestlé Waters North America, including its Ice Mountain bottled water operations in Michigan, to a pair of New York-based private equity firms, One Rock Capital Partners and Metropoulos & Co. After the $4.3 billion deal, the firms rebranded the operation as “Blue Triton Brands” and curtailed its gallons per minute (gpm) extraction rate in Michigan to 288 gpm, which falls below a field-monitoring regulatory threshold established in response to years of controversy around Nestlé’s operations in the state. Blue Triton, which now encompasses the aforementioned Ice Mountain, along with Poland Spring, Deer Park, Ozarka, Zephyr Hills, Arrowhead, Pure Life and Splash, will be able to withdraw 414,720 gallons per day with an annual cap of 20,059,039 gallons.

Nestlé remains a world leader in bottled water despite the exit, and it has retained its hold on well-known “premium brands” Perrier, S.Pellegrino and Acqua Panna. Nestlé’s retention of Perrier seems fitting since Perrier’s health and luxury branding in the late ‘70s set the stage for the transformation of the bottle water business into a multibillion-dollar behemoth.

Perrier, which had been part of a “niche” market of mineral waters, rose from 3 million bottles in 1975 to approximately 200 million bottles on the eve of the 1980s. Propelled by a marketing campaign emphasizing both the healthfulness and the luxury cache of the water’s “French pedigree and premium price,” as food writer Robert Moss detailed in Serious Eats, Perrier capitalized on “baby boomers’ growing desire for status as the generation shed its tie-dyed T-shirts and started entering the corporate world.”

By the time Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, Perrier had grown large enough to gobble up its leading competitor, Poland Spring Water, and thereby captured 85 percent of the bottled water market. It stumbled in 1990 when “traces of benzene … prompted a nationwide recall and sent the company’s sales plummeting.” Other companies grabbed up Perrier’s lost customers, and within two years, Nestlé grabbed Perrier, forming the global bottled water titan it is today.

Don’t Be Naïve

Did you know that “Evian” is “naïve” spelled backwards?

That was the oft-told joke when both the Evian brand and bottled water became ubiquitous in the early ‘90s. But now the joke’s on us, and the punch line is found in the bottom lines of corporations that rake in billions by often taking tap water or water from the commons, bottling it and selling it back to us for a hefty profit.

Perhaps the cruelest irony of all is that the more Americans relied on bottled water, which is basically privatized water, the less political urgency there was for making the far less expensive public water flowing from our taps clean and safe and accessible to all. It’s not coincidental that Americans conspicuously consumed more and more bottled water during the luxury-branded era of conspicuous consumption, or that this thirst coincided with the coming of the so-called Reagan Revolution and its broad attack on the nature and efficacy of government and government regulation.

It was a significant political shift steeped in the neoliberal notion that government regulation was inherently bad, privatization was inherently good and government should always be regarded with suspicion and disdain. It brought with it a disregard for public investments not associated with the military-industrial complex. While companies like Nestlé took advantage of the Reagan-stoked deregulatory wave, crucial infrastructure was left to decay and long-overdue upgrades left off the agenda. Decades of indifference to public investment led to the persistence of lead-tainted water which, in turn, forces citizens to rely on privatized bottled water as the only safe and potable option.

Perhaps that’s why the people of Benton Harbor are not laughing. They, like the lead-impacted residents of Flint; Jackson, Mississippi; Clarksburg, West Virginia; Newark, New Jersey; Olean, New York; Racine, Wisconsin; Chicago, Illinois; and Cincinnati, Ohio, face a long, costly road of remediation and reconstruction. So do millions more who may yet learn their pipes deliver more than just water.

The recently passed $1.2 trillion “bipartisan infrastructure billallocates $55 billion to water-related spending and $15 billion specifically for lead pipe remediation. Estimates for replacing all of the nation’s lead lines range from $28 billion to as high as $60 billion, so it’s hard to view $15 billion as anything more than a good start.

In fact, it’s only about $1 billion more than the nearly $14 billion Americans spent this year alone on the privatized public water they prefer to drink out of a plastic bottle.

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