Nothing quenches a thirst like cool water, whether it's Pepsi Co.'s Aquafina (13 percent of the bottled water market), or Coca-Cola's Dasani (11 percent of the market), or a specialty water from Nestlé. Every day, millions of Americans grab a clear plastic bottle of water from the cooler at a convenience store, or pull a case of it from the shelves at their local supermarket. Toting water has become as indispensable for some people as carrying a cell phone.
The $15 billion a year industry has grown from a marketing approach evoking purity, natural springs and the great outdoors. In 1976 the average American drank 1.6 gallons of bottled water, but 30 years later consumption jumped to 28.3 gallons. Within a decade bottled water is projected to surpass the current 52.9 gallons per year consumption rate of soda.
While drinking water rather than soda offers positive health benefits, the delivery of individual servings of water in polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles brings a headache to landfills. Americans used 50 billion PET bottles last year — about 167 per person — but recycled only 23 percent of them. Landfills got the other 38 billion. Add to this the pollution from moving one billion bottles of water weekly by ship, truck and train, and bottled water represents a genuine environmental concern.
Fiji Water comes from the islands of Fiji, which lie roughly 8,000 miles from New York. The bottles for the Fiji Water nearly double the trip because first they are brought to Fiji, filled, then shipped to their final destinations. Transportation represents fully half the wholesale cost of Fiji Water. In addition, the Fiji Water plant further impacts the environment because it operates 24 hours a day, requiring uninterrupted electricity that the factory supplies with three large generators run by diesel fuel.
The bottled water closest to home comes from Aquafina and Dasani because they start with the local municipal water throughout the country. Both Pepsi and Coca-Cola add an energy-intensive filtration process to insure purity and consistency. As researcher Charles Fishman writes: "They are recleaning already-clean tap water." Despite safe, clean municipal water in the United States costing pennies per gallon, many consumers still choose to buy water at twice the price of gasoline. For some, bottled water represents convenience, for others, status and for still others, matters of health.
The marketplace sees purchasing bottled water as a consumer choice, but people of faith reject the "it's-my-money" argument. Water "constitutes an essential element of life" — according to Benedict XVI's 2007 Message for World Water Day — and "water cannot be treated as just another commodity." The principles of subsidiarity and solidarity paint a larger picture about the global water supply.
Worldwide, one billion people lack safe water and everyday over 3,000 children die from diseases caused by unhealthy water. While Fiji Water ships one million bottles of water per day, more than half the people in Fiji lack safe, reliable drinking water. By purchasing bottled water that promotes profits over the public good, i.e. the privatization of water, the consumer can encourage the disregard for local community rights (subsidiarity) to provide safe drinking water for all.
In addition, solidarity requires examining present patterns of water delivery with its pollution and waste in light of future generations, because today's convenience might produce tomorrow's hangover.
While promoting greater water drinking for health reasons, we can responsibly tap safe local supplies using additional filters and refillable bottles. If giving a cup of cold water brings God's blessing (Mt 10:42), how much more will ensuring safe water for all with a minimum of pollution?