Second only to soda, bottled water is on the verge of becoming the most popular beverage in the country. The brands have become so ubiquitous that we’re hardly conscious that Poland Spring and Evian were once real springs, bubbling in remote corners of Maine and France. Only now, with the water industry trading in the billions of dollars, have we begun to question what it is we’re drinking.
In this intelligent, accomplished work of narrative journalism, Elizabeth Royte does for water what Michael Pollan did for food: she finds the people, machines, economies, and cultural trends that bring it from distant aquifers to our supermarkets. Along the way, she investigates the questions we must inevitably answer. Who owns our water? How much should we drink? Should we have to pay for it? Is tap safe water safe to drink? And if so, how many chemicals are dumped in to make it potable? What happens to all those plastic bottles we carry around as predictably as cell phones? And of course, what’s better: tap water or bottled?
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Customer Reviews57 of 61 people found the following review helpful
An expose that merits more attention, May 21, 2008 By Jijnasu Forever (Lynnfield, MA) – See all my reviews
This is a remarkably interesting read that I am afraid hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves. Ever since I read an article on “Fast Company” on the phenomenon of bottled water, I have been intrigued by it. A recent review in “Seed” introduced me to this book. I am glad that I read it.
Despite the “funny” review of a top 1000 reviewer (imagine that) that considers this book as propaganda for more regulation, it is quite the opposite. The book comes across as a systematic analysis of how the industry evolved and some on-the-scene reporting of key players like Nestle and Poland Springs. The chapter on the latter, neatly cataloging the unimaginable conflicts of interests and a apparently pliant local public officials, alone is worth the price of the book. It is impossible for a reader not to be shocked at some of the reporting (the author almost always avoids any preachy tone). The contrasts and comparisons drawn between the Freysburg and Kingsfield communities is an interesting read as well. There is another chapter that outlines some actions companies like Coke are taking to evaluate their footprint. Another chapter worth mentioning is “Something to Drink?” – the last chapter which takes a broader viewpoint and ties the topics to global warming and related issues. You will learn fun stats as “a cotton t-shirt is backed by 528.3 gallons of water and a single cup of coffee by 52.8 gallons”.
Now, the negatives – The book takes a decidely US-centric narration. There is no extensive discussion on similar issues outside of the US (though there is some mention on the Coke debacle in India). The first-account narrative style helps to provide a very down-to-earth method to convey the ideas, but sometimes distracts from highlighting some of the salient points being made.
Nevertheless, an informative, entertaining read that will certainly question the utility of an entire industry.
Don’t be put off by the apparently trivial title, June 6, 2008 By A reader (Upstate NY, USA) – See all my reviews
Verified Purchase(What’s this?)
The title is cute and catchy and implies the book is a lightweight screed about the erstwhile evils of drinking bottled water. Yes, the initial starting point for Ms. Royte’s inquiry was asking some simple questions about the impacts and equities of a corporation bottling huge quantities of Maine springwater. But this is an important environmental book, in the same league as “An Inconvenient Truth”.
This is because Ms. Royte’s simple questions about bottled water lead her and us on an exploration of a whole hidden world of our water and sanitation resources and infrastructure that lies behind our taps. How does bottled springwater differ from tap water in terms of harmful biological and chemical contaminants? How did the fad of chugging water out of throwaway plastic bottles catch on? Where does our tap water come from? How is it treated? Is that necessarily good for us? What is happening to the watersheds that all of us depend on? How can they be protected? How are water and sanitation systems interrelated? Are these groundwater and freshwater issues affected by other environmental trends, like global warming? And so on.
Like Ms. Royte, you will probably come to the end of this brisk, readable work knowing a lot more about your own water and sanitation then you did when you began and have a much better appreciation of the somewhat unsurprising policy conclusions she reaches: that protecting our public drinking water “commons” makes more sense than drinking water bottled at distant plants.
Although judging by the cute title and cover art the topic might seem a bit frothy and more of a treatise on marketing and product development, the author’s target is much wider. I am an environmental attorney and have handled permitting and litigation involving public water supply and sanitary treatment systems and bottled springwater, and am impressed by how the author is able to get so much technical detail right, while keep it readable and interesting to a lay audience. Ms. Royte has written one of the best general interest books in a long while on an important, probably, THE most important environmental topic (other than climate change/greenhouse gases) of “wat-san” and preserving/expanding our aging public water and sewer infrastructure. In getting to those conclusions by starting her inquiry with questions about commoditized bottled water, the author attempts to be evenhanded and fair in her depiction of the corporate and individual actors without overly indulging in anti-corporate bias.
My only minor quibble is the omission of any discussion of state licensing requirements and associated testing and reporting requirements (where it says, e.g., “NYSHD Cert. No. ___” on the label in small type). However, that’s just a small omission, although I’m surprised the Nestle people didn’t mention that there are state reviews of their in-house analytical and production data, it would seem to make their case stronger that water quality is not merely self-regulated or conforming only to advisory industry standards (i.e., IBWA) with respect to periodic testing, labeling and allowable maximum contaminant levels. That small error however does not detract significantly from the quality of this book. I’ve just ordered a few more copies of this book to share with several friends and colleagues who I think would be interested, that’s how much I’m recommending it.
Absolutely the Best Book on Nestle and the Predatory Bottled Water Industry, May 17, 2008 By Peter Crabb (Pennsylvania USA) – See all my reviews
Elizabeth Royte has written the best book available on the bottled water industry. Focusing on Nestle Waters North America and its Poland Spring operations in Maine, Royte’s writing is knowledgeable, even-handed, and hip, and has none of the hyperbolic mewling that many environmentalist writers fall prey to. She provides sweeping and insightful coverage of the history, hydrogeology, chemistry, technology, politics, economics, and social psychology of the commodification of water. Readers will develop a better appreciation of just how unhealthy, environmentally destructive, and frankly crazy it is to buy and drink bottled water. An enlightening joy to read. Thanks, Elizabeth!
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