Bottled Water Is Waste Water

Eco-warrior, poet and educator Gary Snyder asks that you know where your water comes from. Literally. He wants you to determine which lake or river it comes from and via which drainage. Of course, this is something every person knew as a matter of survival before the concept of modern plumbing.
Now, Charles Fishman writing for Fast Company, updates Snyder’s quest for the bottled water age.

Bottled water is often simply an indulgence, and despite the stories we tell ourselves, it is not a benign indulgence. We’re moving 1 billion bottles of water around a week in ships, trains, and trucks in the United States alone. That’s a weekly convoy equivalent to 37,800 18-wheelers delivering water. (Water weighs 81/3 pounds a gallon. It’s so heavy you can’t fill an 18-wheeler with bottled water–you have to leave empty space.)
Meanwhile, one out of six people in the world has no dependable, safe drinking water. The global economy has contrived to deny the most fundamental element of life to 1 billion people, while delivering to us an array of water “varieties” from around the globe, not one of which we actually need.

Fishman’s piece is quite detailed and nuanced. He says, “A chilled plastic bottle of water in the convenience-store cooler is the perfect symbol of this moment in American commerce and culture.” He also dives deep into the collective fantasies we’ve created in our minds, the very place where brands live.

With its square bottle and tropical graphics, few bottled waters occupy the top rung in the American psyche like Fiji Water. But the reality of the product is not as pretty, nor as clean.

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.

While Fiji’s state-of-the-art factory spins out more than a million bottles a day of the hippest bottled water on the U.S. market today, more than half the people in Fiji do not have safe, reliable drinking water. To pile irony upon irony, many Americans have pristine tap water piped into their homes and offices for free. In light of the facts above, it’s dizzying to consider.

About David Burn

Co-founder and editor of AdPulp. I wrote my first ad for a political candidate when I was 17 years old. She won her race and I felt the seductive power of advertising for the first time. I worked for seven agencies in five states before launching my own practice in 2009. Today, I am head of brand strategy and creative at Bonehook in Portland, Oregon.


  1. Reichart says:

    Wow, I don’t think I have ever been moved to write this sentence, but:
    SCREW YOU for writing this paragraph – “The global economy has contrived to deny the most fundamental element of life to 1 billion people”
    I used to laugh at Archie Bunker, and here I find my self wanting to call the writer of this article a “commie pinko bastard.”
    How oddly we age.

  2. It’s a dramatic line for sure, and there are other causes like population explosion, but it’s hard to deny that resource depletion harms the poor first and foremost.

  3. anonymous says:

    And Reichart fails to counter any of the arguments in the article. How progessive. Hurtle insults but don’t dare make a point.

  4. This article makes me want to buy a bottle of Fiji water and dump it out and send a video of it to the people who live in Fiji…or use it to clean myself after violating a toilet. I’m American, therefore I can.

  5. Stacy Pfeifer says:

    I like this article and I like the point you made. I feel that most Americans take for granted most, if not all, that we/they have. I’ve traveled to poor parts and have seen how hard it is to get basic tap drinking water and yes I have found myself back in the states at seven-eleven, staring aimlessly at the endless array of brands “water” and habitually comparing them. Water is water, right? I understand what you are saying. Unfortunately – the large majority of Americans not only do not care, but they are not interested in people like us showing them how to care. It’s sick and sometimes makes me ashamed to be American. We’ve become selfish and one track minded – and we’re getting worse (spoiled). “who Cares? What we don’t know won’t hurt us”…should be our new Motto. But don’t worry there are still those of us who really care – that’s something.

  6. There’s an anthropologist at Vassar/TheUniversity of Chicago who researches Fiji water, Martha Kaplan. She’s writing a book called “Local Politics and a Global Commodity: Fijian Water in Fiji and New York.” I found some info here and here.

  7. Greg, you’re either in no way sarcastic or in no way a total douchebag.

  8. John Smith says:

    I love it. The democrat liberal communist faggots complain about too much American intervention overseas, then they bitch about how we need to cure AIDS in Africa and save other countries from their dirty drinking water. Intervene or don’t intervene fucking make up your brainwashed minds. I know you guys think the Daily Show is so damn LOL but I’d rather be right than hip.

  9. What a coherent, totally relevant to this post comment.
    I think the point is, we have shitloads of water that is perfectly drinkable and get it trucked in from Fiji, which has little.
    Where does intervention overseas play a role in this?
    This, actually, is an attempt to educate people and let the market decide, what any non-faggot liberal communist democrat (I’m assuming) conservative should love.

  10. Well… When our “pristine” tap water tastes as good as Fiji, I’ll switch..
    But seriously, are you telling us that Fiji residents get absolutely no benefit from selling this water? Like, no jobs? Did you think about asking them if *they* would want us to stop buying their water or their opinion doesn’t really matter to you since you already know you’re right?
    P.S. Also, it’s somewhat ironic that you have ads for bottled water on this site. So, you’re making money from the product you don’t want people to buy?

  11. Yeah, we must really be giving lots of people in Fiji jobs because, “more than half the people in Fiji do not have safe, reliable drinking water.”
    It seems that a lot of commenters here are not quite catching the point of this article. The article is not saying there is anything inherently wrong with international business. It is trying to get readers to realize the process of obtaining Fiji water is very inefficient. If everyone drank tap water, and all the money that is put into bottled water was spent on getting everyone clean water; the world would be a better place, no? All of the resources used for bottled water could then be used for the 1 billion people who have no clean water. This is a world problem. Check out the UN’s 2006 Human Development Report
    In the words of Greg Easterbrook:
    Roughly 1.1 billion people lack clean drinking water. The waterborne illnesses they suffer as a result not only cause human misery — each year in the developing world there are more deaths from diarrhea diseases than from cancer in the United States and nations of the European Union combined — but also hold back developing nations, as the sick can’t look after themselves. Some 2.6 billion worldwide lack proper sanitary conditions for wastewater treatment.
    As the United States looks outward to the world for good deeds our nation can do, helping impoverished nations improve their drinking water supplies and water sanitation stands near the top of the list. The United Nations report estimates $10 billion in capital investment could provide 500 million poor people with safe drinking water. That’s roughly one month of United States military expenditures in Iraq. Suppose we accelerated our inevitable withdrawal from Iraq by a single month — and remember, withdrawal always has been inevitable. Suppose the $10 billion in savings was invested in developing-world water purity. Such United States action literally could be a lifesaver for millions and improve America’s image in the world, rather than diminish it.
    There is nothing wrong with American intervention. I just think American intervention is much more productive when we’re trying to save people’s lives instead of killing them. Call me crazy, but I think whatever higher order you ascribe to, would probably agree.

  12. @Matt
    If everyone drank tap water, and all the money that is put into bottled water was spent on getting everyone clean water; the world would be a better place, no?
    I think the answer here really is a firm NO. If everyone drank tap water; the money coming into the country for their water would dry up. They could not re-invest that money to improve the local water supply, because there would be no more money.

  13. @ Ryan
    Yes, if we did not buy their water, money coming into the country would dry up. That’s why I suggested spending the money that would have been spent on bottled water on getting clean tap water for people who do not have access too it. Sorry, you had to read the sentence that followed your quote as well.
    None of us NEED Fiji brand bottled water. Tap water is readily available, and quite healthy. Therefore, all of the money that is put into bottled water is ultimately a waste. Sure, you might think it’s so much more refreshing than tap water that it brings a slight glimmer of sunshine into your otherwise dull life, but at what cost? Does it make you happy enough to justify half of the people in Fiji having no drinking water? This comparison is rather high-flown, but the idea behind it is simple: There are better uses of money than a diesel powered plant that supplies Americans with water from half-way around the world that they don’t need whatsoever.
    I’m not saying Fiji is a horrible company. On their website you can see many positive things they have done for the island. They contribute to disaster relief, support hospitals, and construct schools. However, they do not employ as many people as you may imagine. From their website, “FIJI Water provides more than 150 full time jobs in Fiji.” Also, I’m sure the majority of the companies profits return to it’s headquarters in Los Angeles. In the end, it is still a very inefficient and wasteful process which is completely unnecessary.

  14. Would you then say that the majority of industrial style capitalism is completely unnecessary?
    I would suggest that there are many more worse industries that one would look to changing first. Overall – I think the Fiji bottled water company does much more good then harm. There is no way that a normal person would donate the money that they would have spent on water to the company/country that the water was being pulled out of. Perhaps a tax would be more beneficial as that tax could then be provided specifically for improvements.
    In addition, I think that any monies garnered to the local government of Fiji would have a large portion going to corruption. Perhaps it in no way would be better then paying a corporation for a product.
    Remember these are just my rambling thoughts and attempts to play devils advocate. It seems that many people do not consider both sides of their own arguments.

  15. “then” and “than” are not the same word…

  16. The (GRD) great republican depression having cast its shadow over American banking practices, is now engulfing Americans in unprecedented lay-offs and employment chaos. The foreign owned vulture capitalist business style factory farms and the interconnecting food distribution chain is breaking down as we speak, and the “Peanut King” of America just plead “The Fifth” to save his own predatory capitalist ass, after poisoning us in the name of higher profits and shareholder loyalties. When, not “if” the food supply chain breaks down, millions will sit on well fertilized lawns in front of foreclosing McMansions, waving the red white and blue symbol of entitlement, watch SUVs rusting and leaking toxic fluids, with empty stomachs, frustration in their hearts, with bottled water in hand. This is the first phase of the redefining of the “American Dream” brought on by the dwindling world resource supply, lead by oil and provoked by OPEC, who continue to cut supplies to artificially raise prices, in a cruel get rich scheme aimed at the American worker’s pocket-book. The GRD will make mince-meat of the false notions of “position” and “entitlement” and “rights” and “expectations” for the average working class American. He will be shocked to find out that he is the lowest most dis-respected most viciously exploited serf on the ladder of American life, and has imagined or been fed propaganda as to what his rights and expectations should be. With this depressing realization, GI Joe and his leather-neck buddies will have the seeds of the revolution to come to America planted in their very soul, and the end of this country as we now it will come into sight! Thank You Messers bush and the neo-con bastards that created this, may you die in proper infamy.commercialized, bottled water in hand, and still paying dividends to your vast estates.

  17. I just read the entire article while drinking a bottle of Fiji water. But what else would you expect from an under-educated lazily-ignorant resource-consuming indifferent-to-global-problems American teenager? And I’m one of the smarter ones. Perhaps C. Fishman is on to something…

  18. One more idea: Besides the global economic waste of transporting water instead of ‘going local,’ think about the harmful effects of plastic chemical leakage into your pristine water which totally destroys the selling points and reason to get ‘clean’ bottled water.
    Plastic Bottles Release Potentially Harmful Chemicals (Bisphenol A) After Contact With Hot Liquids
    It’s a matter of weighing the cost of production, transportation, marketing, plus economic/social/environmental impacts etc for the water against the benefits, which include the status symbol and momentarily delightful taste of a bottle of water.
    I believe good topic and questions for ethics, business & marketing courses.
    Debby, Homeopathy World Community