Poland Spring Ads Try to Put Sparkle on Big Plastic Pollution Problem

poland springWhen the mayor of San Francisco bans bottled water from city offices, and some high-profile restaurants follow suit, it's time for the bottled water industry to go on the offensive. Poland Spring's approach is to defend its environmental record with a two-page advertising spread -- complete with footnotes -- now appearing in leading magazines, including The New Yorker and Newsweek.

"The Science Behind the Magic of Poland Spring," it says, with the full story available here. "We are always looking for ways to reduce our impact on the environment," the ad says. "Maybe that's why Poland Spring has the lightest carbon footprint of all leading bottled beverages."What it doesn't say is that bottled water is a huge part of our overall trash problem in the first place: 35 billion bottles sold in the U.S. every year, 28 billion of them dumped in landfills, incinerated or littering the planet. The carbon footprint of Poland Spring -- which does not come from the country of Poland, but from Maine and other U.S. sources -- should in all fairness be compared to tap water. Bottle wasting has tripled since 1990, and the energy squandered by not recycling all that plastic is equivalent to the annual energy needs of more than 3.6 million American households.

Since Nestlé's branded water has taken an academic approach, I thought I'd subject their ad to peer review -- in this case, by Susan Collins, executive director of the Container Recycling Institute. Here's what she found:

Poland Spring is unusually candid in revealing that the nationwide recycling rate for PET [polyethylene terephthalate] bottles is 27%, but Collins says the real rate is 20.9%. That recalculated rate subtracts the caps, labels and glue that aren't recycled when the bottle is. An irony, Collins says, is caps often get counted twice in the PET recycling rate, first as part of the bottle and second if the caps are sold to another recycling processor.

The ad continues, "Best of all, since 2006 we have reduced the amount of plastic in our half-liter bottle by 38%." Note that specific reference to one bottle. Collins notes that some Nestlé Waters bottles are thicker. "I wonder what the numbers would look like if they characterized the entire product line?" she asks.

According to Poland Spring, if we simply doubled the recycling rate to 54% [or 41.8% by Collins' reckoning] the CO2 emissions saved would be equal to taking 185,000 cars off the road every year." That would indeed be great, but we should also consider the savings for our poor planet if everybody just drank tap water.
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