The battle over bottled water moves to YouTube

Battle over bottled waterThe battle over whether bottled water is a blight on the environment or an upstanding consumer choice has moved to YouTube, where the two sides are dueling it out via video.

It's no trivial issue. Americans drink 500 million bottles of water every week. (Put end to end, the containers would circle the globe five times.) Every year, the oil and energy used to make water bottles would fuel a million cars.

Is bottled water an unnecessary environmental abomination? (See The Story of Bottled Water, from the people who brought you the astoundingly successful viral video The Story of Stuff.) Or a healthy product, influenced not by advertising but by genuine consumer choice and convenience? (See The Real Story of Bottled Water, produced in claymation by the International Bottled Water Association.)

So far, the Story of Stuff Project is winning the war for hearts and minds. Its YouTube video has almost 800,000 views, compared to 1,751 for The Real Story of Bottled Water. Of course, a lot of those people watched those videos, pro and con, with a bottle of water handy for hydration. Judge for yourself. Here's The Story of Bottled Water:

And here's The Real Story of Bottled Water:

The facts support The Story of Bottled Water, though the International Bottled Water Association, with a talking water-cooler bottle as host, tries valiantly to refute its charges. The crux of the matter is what the critics call "manufactured demand."

"They're convincing you that you need something you really don't," according to Michael O'Heany, associate director of the Story of Stuff Project. "What's nefarious about manufactured demand is the sales campaigns that convince people to fear tap water. They never come right out and say that tap water is dangerous, but they manage to convince you that bottled water is safer. We've lost our sense of the commons. Tap water is a public good, and people shouldn't be afraid of it."

Sometimes bottled water ads do cross the line. I remember a Smart Water print campaign featuring actress Jennifer Aniston that would definitely steer people away from the tap. She's still at it, touting her tight stomach as a result of workouts backed up with bottled water.

IBWA's very assertive vice president of communications, Tom Lauria, has a word for all of that: nonsense. He says the trade association was moved to make its "deliberately amateurish" video (kind of dim, actually) specifically to rebut the idea that bottled water companies manufacture demand.

"Our products are consumer driven, and they're hundreds of years old," he said, pointing to images in his video of horse-drawn water wagons. "Bottled water wasn't born yesterday. We're not manipulating anyone--our ad expenditures are tiny when compared to those for beer and soda pop. We didn't drum up demand--bottled water caught on like wildfire. It's delicious, and people get it. It's a matter of better taste and convenience. Some people smell the chlorine in tap water, and they prefer the crisp, fresh taste of bottled."

The water association has a tough time, though, refuting the basic environmental fact that discarded water bottles are a huge problem. According to O'Heany, only 20% of water bottles are recycled; 80% are dumped in a landfill or burned. (The actual recovery rate is 27%, according to this report from last year.) This is a retreat--recycling of polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, bottles has massively declined since people started drinking water from the supermarket. "But they tout 20% as a victory," O'Heany said.

Lauria touts the water bottle's "100% recyclability" and points out that companies have reduced bottle weight 32% over the last eight years "to make it as thin as possible." He also said the industry "has plans to support recycling more."

That might be credible if it were not for the industry's support for Keep America Beautiful, which as I've written has a history of actively fighting the bottle bills that dramatically increase recycling rates. The group, supported with large donations from big players like Nestlé Waters, is now more subtle about pushing the bottlers' message. (It says it's neutral on bottled bills.) But it continues to advance the idea that consumers like you and me are responsible for bottle litter, not the companies that make the bottles.

The bottled water association is not currently supporting Keep America Beautiful, Lauria said, but it is in discussions with the group about helping pay for a new industry-supported initiative that will financially support curbside recycling programs in the 50% of American towns and cities that don't have them.

Why doesn't IBWA just support bottle bills, then, since they also help jump-start the recycling rates the industry wants to increase? "Because they're inefficient and consumers hate them," Lauria said. "Why should people have to bring their garbage back to the store?"

Campaigns like The Story of Stuff have made minor inroads into bottled water sales, but Lauria says that the latest Beverage Marketing Corporation data indicates that the market is trending back to higher levels. It was 29.2% of the beverage market and holding steady in 2009.

CNN notes the dip, but says not to worry about bottlers making a living. "Is it true?" the network asks. "Are liters of Evian now beyond the pale? Is Dasani déclassé? Has bottled water become the new eco-no-no? Not quite yet. Though water sales have seen a recent downturn, plenty of folks are still paying for their daily hydration."

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