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.