Last month I vowed that Elizabeth Royte’s Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It was going to be the next book I read. As it turned out, I wound up reading her earlier book Garbage Land first. That book chronicles her efforts to follow the multiple waste streams from her home in Brooklyn to a number of surprising destinations. (Must reading for the disposal culture.)
I was given Bottlemania as a father’s day gift, so after finishing Garbage Land, I dove right into her new book.
For younger people, packaged water must seem like a completely normal thing, having grown up with it. For those like me, who came of age prior to the 1980s when there was no such thing, it still seems like an unlikely product. In Bottlemania, Royte explains how things changed so much and considers what changes might yet be in store for us and our drinking water.
box vox: Bottlemania begins with your visit to the Poland Spring bottling plant in western Maine and then zeros in on the town of Fryeburg where local residents are objecting to so much of their water supply being pumped out and driven away. I’d recently seen, “There Will Be Blood” and the way you describe events unfolding in Fryeburg, with the clandestine acquisition of land for pumping operations (and the occasional straw metaphor) reminded me of that movie. Do you think there are parallels between the oil industry and the bottled water industry?
Elizabeth Royte: Because both oil and water are so valuable and it takes a fairly sophisticated distribution network to get these resources to the broadest markets, corporations will go to great lengths to control them. In Bottlemania I write about the strong-arm tactics and backroom maneuverings of cities to get their hands on more water for municipal supplies, and about private water companies doing the same for bottling. As the population grows and the climate changes, fresh water will become ever scarcer—and therefore valuable: the lengths to which investors will go will grow ever longer. We see Nestlé going from small town to small town to acquire spring water; in Texas, oil billionaire T. Boone Pickens is buying up water rights, looking to pipe this resource to thirsty cities.
From aspirational marketing to conspicuous consumption: 1970’s Perrier on the left; bling H2O (purportedly, the most expensive bottled water currently available) on the right
box vox: In explaining how such widespread consumer acceptance of water-as-a-commodity ever came to pass, you brought up something that I had forgotten. How back in the 80s, bottled water was considered fancy and European—Perrier in specially shaped glass bottles. (And then there was that business with Madonna and the bottle in “Truth or Dare.”) But aside from the cultural factors, you also cite the introduction of the 1/2 liter PET bottle. Why was that so revolutionary for the bottled water industry?
Elizabeth Royte: It was a breakthrough because it was super-clear and shiny, lightweight and cheap. A lower price made it easier for water to compete in a crowded beverage market (and Americans, research showed, didn’t like the taste of water from aluminum cans).
(more photos and Royte answers 5 more questions after the jump…)