It should be self-evident for anyone that bottling and transporting water across a continent or an ocean (or both) is an epitomization of the current era of indulgence and careless wastefulness. Now Charles Fishman at FastCompany magazine and Pablo Päster at TriplePundit have written two definitive accounts of the global bottled insanity.
Päster, who's a sustainability engineer, has tried to calculate the true cost of bottling and transporting a one-liter bottle of Fiji Water to America (it's the latest fashionable mineral water, not available yet in Europe, at least to my knowledge). Apart from the trail of fossil fuels burned and greenhouse gases emitted, the most spectacular result is that manufacturing and transporting that 1-kg bottle uses 6.74 kg of water -- 7 times more than the content of the bottle. (See details here).
In this month's FC, Fishman has a great report on the market for bottled water -- focusing on the US, but this is an industry that started in Europe, so he also looks at Perrier and San Pellegrino and at how this multibillion-dollar business has succeeded (packaging, marketing, branding) in making people buy something they don't need (in the US and Europe tap water is most of the time as good, or often better, than bottled water). His full story is here, and here a few excerpts:
The label on a bottle of Fiji Water says "from the islands of Fiji." Journey to the source of that water, and you realize just how extraordinary that promise is. From New York, for instance, it is an 18-hour plane ride west and south (via Los Angeles) almost to Australia, and then a four-hour drive along Fiji's two-lane King's Highway.
Every bottle of Fiji Water goes on its own version of this trip, in reverse, although by truck and ship. In fact, since the plastic for the bottles is shipped to Fiji first, the bottles' journey is even longer. Half the wholesale cost of Fiji Water is transportation -- which is to say, it costs as much to ship Fiji Water across the oceans and truck it to warehouses in the United States than it does to extract the water and bottle it.
That is not the only environmental cost embedded in each bottle of Fiji Water. The Fiji Water plant is a state-of-the-art facility that runs 24 hours a day. That means it requires an uninterrupted supply of electricity--something the local utility structure cannot support. So the factory supplies its own electricity, with three big generators running on diesel fuel. The water may come from "one of the last pristine ecosystems on earth," as some of the labels say, but out back of the bottling plant is a less pristine ecosystem veiled with a diesel haze.
Each water bottler has its own version of this oxymoron: that something as pure and clean as water leaves a contrail.
San Pellegrino's 1-liter glass bottles--so much a part of the mystique of the water itself--weigh five times what plastic bottles weigh, dramatically adding to freight costs and energy consumption. The bottles are washed and rinsed, with mineral water, before being filled with sparkling Pellegrino--it uses up 2 liters of water to prepare the bottle for the liter we buy. The bubbles in San Pellegrino come naturally from the ground, as the label says, but not at the San Pellegrino source. Pellegrino chooses its CO2 carefully--it is extracted from supercarbonated volcanic springwaters in Tuscany, then trucked north and bubbled into Pellegrino. (...)
Once you understand the resources mustered to deliver the bottle of water, it's reasonable to ask as you reach for the next bottle, not just "Does the value to me equal the 99 cents I'm about to spend?" but "Does the value equal the impact I'm about to leave behind?"