Thursday, June 21, 2007

Water, water, everywhere -- and lots of drops to drink

Bottled water is expensive, wasteful, and sometimes unsafe



“Would you like bottled water or tap water?” the server asks. That question, routine in upscale big-city restaurants these days, never fails to make me uncomfortable. If I say I just want tap water, do I seem cheap? As if I wouldn’t be able to pay the check if I ordered bottled water? Well, the truth is, I am cheap. I typically drink several glasses of water while eating, especially if I’m thirsty. Because we usually have wine or beer with our evening meal, the water keeps me from slamming down something that should be savored just to quench my thirst. There are several mineral waters I like, but their nuances are lost alongside the flavors of the food and other drink. Tap water works just fine.

Thanks to a recent New York Times article, I’ll no longer feel any discomfort when asked the tap-versus-bottled question. The article highlighted a growing group of highly regarded restaurants that no longer serve bottled water. Like so many other trends, this one began in California. Several restaurants in the San Francisco Bay area made the decision to stop selling bottled water to their customers. When Alice Waters, the legendary “mother of California cuisine” and fierce advocate of local and sustainable food, stopped serving bottled water and began serving house-made sparkling water in her restaurant, Chez Panisse, chefs and restauranteurs everywhere began taking notice. Del Posto, the crown jewel in Mario Batali’s New York restaurant empire, is jumping on the bandwagon.

Many are reluctant to give up selling bottled water, with good reason. It has the highest markup (read profit) of any menu item, often sold for four or more times its retail cost, and accounts for an estimated take for restaurants nationwide of $200 million to $350 million.

Still, for anyone committed to eating locally, drinking locally is a logical move. As Batali’s partner, Joe Bastianich, explains: “Filling cargo ships with water and sending it thousands of miles to get it around the world seems ridiculous. With all the other things we do for sustainability, [using local filtered water] makes sense.
It makes sense to take a look at bottled-water consumption outside restaurants, too. Consumption of bottled water has skyrocketed. There’s the convenience factor, of course, but another primary reason is a general perception that bottled water is purer than tap water, a perception pushed by labeling and marketing that use images of clear rushing mountain streams or pristine glaciers. A recently published four-year study by the National Resources Defense Council in which more than 1,000 bottles of 103 brands were tested strongly challenged the assumption that bottled water is purer. Some of the waters tested were of high quality, but about a third contained contamination, including synthetic organic chemicals, bacteria, and arsenic.

Of course, there can be problems with tap water, too, but ironically the standards for the public water supply are much more stringent and strictly enforced that those for bottled water. Part of the reason is that tap water is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency, whereas bottled water falls under the jurisdiction of the Food and Drug Administration. The EPA requires multiple daily tests, which must be made publicly available; the FDA requires only weekly testing, which doesn’t have to be reported to the agency, state governments, or the public. The FDA does not require any testing of sparkling water.

The NDRC report found that “about one fourth of bottled water is actually bottled tap water according to government and industry estimates (some estimates go as high as 40 percent).” Both Aquafina (sold by PepsiCo) and Dasani (sold by Coca-Cola) are reprocessed from municipal water systems.

All this sounds a bit scary, but of course most bottled or tap water is safe to drink. Just be aware that that pretty picture on the bottle is probably not where the water inside originated. In 1995 the FDA issued rules to prevent misleading claims, but, according to the NRDC report, while although the agency has prohibited some of the most deceptive labeling practices, the rules haven’t eliminated the problem. The report describes several of the most egregious labels, including one reading “Spring Water” and adorned with a picture of a lake surrounded by mountains. The water was actually from an industrial parking lot next to a hazardous-waste site.

Then there’s pollution. According to the Earth Policy Institute, the plastic bottles for U.S. consumption alone require more than 1.5 million barrels of oil annually. That’s just the oil from which the plastic is derived and doesn’t include the energy expended in the manufacturing process. Transporting all those bottles results in “a significant contribution to global warming, and fundamentally an unnecessary one,” says NRDC senior scientist Dr. Gina Solomon. There’s also the problem of the leftover bottles, only 10 to 14 percent of which are recycled. Good news on this front is that some companies are adopting more eco-friendly alternatives, such as Colorado’s Biota, which is bottling its spring water in a biodegradable plastic derived from corn.

In spite of all of this, I have mixed feelings about bottled water.

People who criticize bottled water seem to assume that everyone would drink tap water instead, but I’m not sure that that’s always true. Bottled water at least is an alternative to less healthy liquids. I’d much rather see children — and adults, for that matter — with a plastic bottle of water in hand than with a plastic bottle of soda or other soft drink. I occasionally drink bottled water — especially when traveling — and try to recycle as best I can. I use distilled water at home to make coffee and tea, because our well water’s high mineral content makes lousy brews. But in restaurants I’ll be having the tap water, please.

For several years, I particularly enjoyed the cucumber-lemon “smart” water made by GlacĂ©au. The company discontinued it, but reproducing the flavor was simple enough. It’s light and refreshing, a good alternative to iced tea, lemonade, or plain water.

Send questions and comments to Julianne Glatz at

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