Why do Americans spend more than $10 billion a year on bottled water?
"The facile answer is marketing, marketing and more marketing," the New York Times Book Review supposes, "but Elizabeth Royte goes much deeper into the drink, streaming trends cultural, economic, political and hydrological into an engaging investigation of an unexpectedly murky substance."
The Boston Globe labeled Bottlemania, "ingenious," particularly impressed by the way Royte, "amiably, without haranguing or hyperventilating... produced what could be, assuming enough people read it, one of the year's most influential books."
Assuming enough people read it?! C'mon! In just one brief phone call, we came up with a heck of a marketing slogan:
If you drink water, you should read this book.
Only 15% of the fifty billion bottles of water that Americans consume each year get recycled. In Garbage Land, Royte brought such news to readers' attention, all in her companionable, inquiring narrative voice. But what goes into those bottles? Where does so much water come from, and at what cost?
Some of the water comes from Fryeburg, Maine. Poland Spring, a division of Nestlé, took 165 million gallons in 2005 alone — and many millions of gallons more from other Maine towns, nearly a billion altogether in one year. Now Fryeburg residents want to know, when all is said and done, whether the world's largest bottled water company will leave any for them.
Dave: How did you come to write about water? Did Bottlemania come straight out of your work on Garbage Land?
Royte: I was at a loss for a new book subject after Garbage Land, but I'd come across a factoid — that bottled water was the largest-growing segment of the beverage industry — while I was working on the garbage book. And while I was researching and writing Garbage Land, I became a little bit obsessed with single-use packaging. That obsession has stuck with me.
I saw all these empty bottles lying around, all the time. Single-use, disposable packaging that didn't have to be there. Poland Spring bottles, in particular, in my neighborhood. So it did grow out of my Garbage Land research, but it took me a year or two to figure out.
Dave: Did your initial concept of Bottlemania change in the course of researching and writing it?
Royte: I started the water book wondering how water had become so popular. I wanted to know, "How did we get to the point of drinking forty billion bottles of it per year?"
I had a simplistic notion that bottled water is bad and tap water is good. Even then, I knew that this idea was a little arrogant, living in New York City, where we have very good water. Then I realized that I couldn't learn why bottled water had become so popular until I figured out what was wrong with tap.
That's when I was surprised. The book took a wild veer in another direction, toward exploring how cities make good water from bad source water, and how some cities and municipalities do a better job of it than others. I was pretty surprised to learn about some of the stuff that can find its way into tap water.
Dave: I didn't expect the book to focus as much on the water, itself, as the environmental impact of all those bottles. Maybe because of the title. Now what I find myself telling people isn't the number of bottles in landfills, though the numbers are mind-boggling. Mostly I've been talking about the privatization of water supplies.
Royte: I'm so glad. The publisher of Garbage Land didn't want to do a water book because they thought people understood the problems with bottled water: it was an environmental issue that had to do with plastic bottles. It would make a nice magazine story, but why do we need a whole book on that? So I went to another publisher.
I knew at that time that I'd be going beyond the plastic bottle, itself. I didn't know how far beyond I'd be going.
I don't know if the title does it justice. The subtitle makes it sound like a marketing book: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It. Designers and packagers have been interested in the book, and social scientists. But, right: it's an environmental book. Like all my books, it talks about the social and environmental impacts of our daily habits.
Dave: You point out that we can live without oil but not without water. Whether people drink from their taps or not, they take for granted that it will always be there.
Royte: Yes, and that brought me to the important subject of global water crisis.
Dave: We hear in the news about water wars and droughts and pollution, but here those issues fit together. You give the big picture.
Royte: That was my intent, to link together the personal — that bottle of water in your hand right now — with the global issues of water scarcity, pollution, and privatization. So, yes, it really is much broader than "consider all the oil that goes into that bottle." I feel like, if you drink water, you should read this book.
Dave: There you go.
Royte: Right. Maybe someone should run an ad: If you drink water, you should read this book. Because it's not just about the bottle, and it's not just about the tap.
Dave: It describes a water war in a small town.
Royte: I kept asking myself, "How is Fryeburg emblematic?"
I came to realize that it's kind of a microcosm. Why should we care about Fryeburg? They're not running out of water. I think they have more rainfall than you do [in Portland, Oregon]. But as the world population grows and global warming makes dry places drier and wet places wetter, clean fresh water is going to become increasingly scarce, and therefore valuable. And when that happens, whose hand do we want on the tap? The hand of local water consumers or the hand of a corporation that answers to its shareholders?
Fryeburg, Maine, is one of the places that Poland Spring — which is owned by Nestlé, the world's largest bottled water company — gets its water. But the company is continually on the prowl for more sources.
Some people in Maine worry, Does Nestlé want this water just for plastic bottles, or do they want to fill up tankers with it and ship it to dry places? Just as people in the Great Lakes states are trying to pass the Great Lakes Compact, they don't want their water going other regions; they want to keep it within their own watersheds.
Dave: And why wouldn't Nestlé consider other uses for that water? Why stop at bottles? At some point, shareholders will be asking why the company isn't more profitable.
There's a telling quote in the book, where you write, "Every time I hear about Coke or Pepsi's elaborate filtration procedure, I sink a little deeper into a funk."
Through just about the whole book, you withhold your opinion about these water wars, but at rare moments such as this one you let your feelings show.
Royte: I learned so much about tap water that made me ask, Do I want to keep drinking this? Is it okay for my young daughter to drink it? There are bad reasons why people drink bottled water, and there are good reasons why people think they need to drink bottled water. I talk a lot about filtering your own water and getting contaminants out of there, being responsible for your water this way — but Coke and Pepsi's water started looking pretty good to me.
They start with municipal supplies, and then they run the water through all these filters: carbon filters, reverse osmosis, ultraviolet light and ozonation. It makes it all seem very nice, if in fact they're doing what they say they do.
But I have to emphasize that retreating en masse to bottled water is not the way to go for the environment. There isn't enough oil to transport these bottles around. And we can't deal with all this waste. As I say in the book, very few — about 15% — of the bottles make it back into recycling systems.
We can't continue to move all this water away from its home watershed to people around the country who don't want to drink their tap water. You cannot transfer billions and billions of gallons away from home watersheds without doing environmental harm.
Dave: That's where the book connects to your other work. It ends up being a matter of ecology. Poland Spring and other companies argue that these watersheds replenish themselves, but how could you possibly withdraw 168 million gallons from Fryeburg each year — the amount Poland Spring took in 2005 — without some kind of environmental cost?
Royte: There is no such thing as extra water. That water used to go somewhere, whether it was out to the ocean where it flowed over oyster beds or whether it was higher upstream where it flowed through wetlands and then into streams and ponds and rivers, as it would from Fryeburg. It was going somewhere, doing something.
We may not completely understand it, but this idea that the water is "extra" makes no sense to me on a fundamental level.
Dave: Are you still using your Brita filter?
Royte: I am, but I realize all I'm doing is getting the chlorine taste out quicker, instead of letting the pitcher sit out overnight. I drink a lot of water, and I don't have room in my fridge to fill a gazillion pitchers and let them off-gas overnight. So yes, I still use the Brita filter.
Dave: To learn that there exists an organization called The International Bottled Water Association was a little disturbing, though I can't say I was surprised.
Royte: Did you see the media advisory they sent out against my book?
Royte: It came out before the book was published. They somehow got an early copy, or perhaps they just assumed they knew what it said. I don't think they actually read it.
I have it here. It says, "Bottlemania's focus on bottled water dilutes the real environmental and drinking water challenges and opportunities."
That's patently ridiculous, the idea that I declined to write about environmental protection and sustainability and the challenges our public water systems face. That's half the book.
Dave: Perhaps you simply have a vendetta against the bottled water industry.
Royte: They thought that. After reading my book, do you think that?
Dave: Actually, the most annoying thing about your book, and also what makes it so interesting, is that you refuse to blame anyone or provide easy answers.
Royte: Bottled water is complex on its own. Tap water is complex, too, because watersheds and contaminants differ, all across the country; it's a local and individual issue. The pipes in your house are different from your aunt's pipes halfway across the country. The issues and answers aren't always clear-cut.
Dave: What stuck with me is this question of whether governments are willing to maintain, or in some cases rebuild, the infrastructures that deliver water to our homes.
Today's newspaper ran a front-page story about the billions of dollars it will cost to make our bridges safe. It does feel like we're approaching a point, skirting responsibilities, decade after decade, when someone is going to propose that a company like Nestlé should simply take over.
Royte: I don't think we have to ask Nestlé.
Dave: I'm not suggesting we should. But it's easy to imagine a politician making the argument, and the millions or even billions of dollars that Nestlé could spend to sway public opinion.
Royte: That is so the wrong way to go. There are privately-run water companies across the country. Some communities are happy with them and some are not, but we know that there is, in general, a lot less transparency.
As I said before, private companies answer to shareholders, not to their customers. We've seen when utilities have been taken over by private companies; sometimes service goes down and prices go up, and then the company cuts and runs when they're not making money off the system.
But yes, we need massive amounts of cash to maintain and upgrade our water systems so that people have access to clean, good water, so that they don't have to go to bottled water.
People ask where the money is going to come from. More realistic rates, that's part of the answer. I know some people complain that rates are too high, but we do have, on average, the cheapest water rates in the developed world. Raising rates in some communities will help.
Also, there has been suggested a Clean Water Trust Fund, something like the Highway Trust Fund. Congressman Earl Blumenauer is pushing a bill forward to develop this. Large-scale users of water would pay into it, and polluters would pay into it. That's an idea for where some of this money would come. And when we're talking about green collar jobs, I think that building our water infrastructure would fit under that rubric.
Dave: You've been called a "narrative journalist." When you're researching and writing, does one part feel more natural than the other?
Royte: I think all my journalism has some narrative, or at least the most successful pieces do. When I was writing this book, the challenge was to come up with ways to tell stories. That's why I looked at Fryeburg, a beautiful, watery place that was full of angry people on both sides of the issue.
Writing about things that don't have a narrative — there are many chapters in Garbage Land where I wrote about mechanical processes — is really difficult for me.
Before I wrote these last two books, most of my writing was about scientists and biology and green things, living things, so writing about these industrial processes was a challenge. There weren't always personalities attached, or not always the most engaging personalities.
Writers are always looking to tell stories through people, through expert guides — "Virgils," as Michael Pollan calls them. They help you find your way through a story or a process. In Bottlemania, I'm following the water through different stages, and I find guides to walk me through them.
Dave: I want to ask, "What's new in waste disposal?," but I'm curious whether when you finish a project of that scale, after it occupies your life for a couple years, is it possible to move on?
Royte: Garbage Land has had a life of its own since the paperback came out. I've been doing college lectures, and hardly a day passes when I don't get a letter from someone with a question or comment about garbage or recycling or zero waste. So I continue to talk about it with school groups and colleges and environmental groups.
Certainly what I learned in that book informs how I live. Same with the water book. It goes on. It's not like you close your computer and switch gears entirely, much as I might like to.
Dave: I assume that you're no longer using the blue toboggan?
Royte: I'm no longer using it to quantify my waste. I'm using it for fun, for snow activities.
But I try to keep up with garbage research, especially the zero waste movement. When you say, "What's new in waste disposal?," I think of the many, many communities adopting zero waste resolutions and coming up with better ways of dealing with waste — primarily by generating less of it upstream and redesigning the way we make things.
Dave: In Garbage Land, you write that municipal waste accounts for only about 2% of the waste generated in this country.
Royte: Upstream, there's far more waste than what we put on the curb. I like to quote William McDonough, who said that what individuals put on the curb "is just the tip of the materials iceberg," that there's far more waste generated upstream — in mining, manufacturing, and so on.
Dave: What have you thrown out today?
Royte: Well, I'm outside of New York City for a few weeks. I'm in Rhinebeck, New York, right now, and there's a compost pile behind the house. I don't think I've put anything in the trash so far today. I had fruit for breakfast and some yogurt.
Oh — the yogurt container! I'm going to sound a little sanctimonious here, but I bought a large size, so there's less waste per serving. That went into the recycling bin, and my fruit scraps went into the compost pile.
What have you thrown out today?
Dave: I'm doing pretty well so far because I'm on the west coast, so it's early enough that I haven't consumed much. A tea bag and the plastic wrap on a muffin. My score might not be so impressive later in the day.
Tell me about the time Edward O. Wilson saved you from a Blaberus cockroach.
Royte: I went to Barro Colorado Island with Ed Wilson to profile him for the New York Times Magazine. It was my first time in a rainforest. We were at a very established field station, where people stayed in somewhat rotted, wooden cabins. The screens didn't close that well, and things could scuttle in under the door.
It was after dinner, late at night. I was exhausted. I went back to my cabin and took a cold shower and stopped sweating, finally. Then just as I was ready to lie down I noticed a cockroach, about four inches from head to tail, on my pillow.
I'm not too squeamish, but cockroaches really bother me. I had read that these cockroaches gnaw at sailors' body parts, toes and fingers, and they chew away at leather. It just sat there. It didn't shoo away. So I left the cabin and started to climb back uphill.
Barro Colorado is a mountaintop. When the Panama Canal rose, Barro Colorado became isolated as an island. So it's very steep, there are stairs everywhere, and I wasn't looking forward to climbing back out in this steamy, hot, jungle night...but I thought I could get a grad student to do cockroach removal.
I ran into Wilson on the steps. He asked what I was doing up at that hour, and I sort of sputtered that there was "this...big...insect on my pillow case." He was very gentlemanly. He said, "Let's see what we can do about that, Ms. Royte." He called me "Ms. Royte."
When we got back to the cabin, the cockroach wasn't on the pillow, but he knew just what to do. He quickly reached over and lifted the thin mattress with his left hand, and with his right hand he snatched at something. He turned around and wiggling in his hand was this enormous cockroach. He walked calmly over to the toilet and dropped it in and flushed. "I don't think this will be bothering you any more tonight," he said.
Dave: Now you know how to get rid of one.
Royte: I don't think I'd ever pick one up with my hand. I might put a bag over my hand and do it. But smashing them with a shoe? It's a big mess.
Dave: You returned to Barro Colorado Island to write The Tapir's Morning Bath. In one of the early chapters, you sit down on a log for just a second and wind up with a hundred seed ticks on your leg.
Dave: It's a great image. Kind of gross but evocative of this jungle scene. So much life.
Royte: People who haven't been to a rainforest imagine it... People thought I was going to a tropical island for a year, rimmed with coconut trees and sand. That is so not what BCI was like. They also think that a rainforest is filled with scarlet macaws and ocelots and flowers and fruit. There is all of that, but there's also chiggers and ticks and flying cockroaches.
Dave: I found an old interview that you did with Monster.com.
Royte: A shining example of Internet regret.
Dave: I don't recall you saying anything embarrassing, but at the end you admit that you'd like to write a sustained, book-length piece of nonfiction. You weren't sure you could maintain an interest in one subject for long enough.
Now that you've written a few books, how do you feel about short and long? If you had your choice, money didn't matter, which would you write? Or would you go back and forth, doing both?
Royte: I like going back and forth, but I have absolutely no problem with a sustained piece of nonfiction. It's a great luxury to have more time and that much space to stretch out.
Doing the water book, my editor left me alone for a year. You don't want to write in a flabby way, but it is a luxury to have enough room to develop ideas and characters and really dig into something.
Dave: What did you write for Rolling Stone? I saw that credit on one of your bios.
Royte: I wrote some things when I was a freelance copy editor there. I wrote a piece about guys who work in mosh pits.
Dave: What do these guys get paid to do in mosh pits?
Royte: To keep people from climbing onto the stage. They guard the edge of the stage, and when people start surfing they try to keep things from getting too rough.
Dave: Have any of your books been optioned? Has there been talk of films or documentaries?
Royte: Many people have contacted me about turning Garbage Land into a movie, but I've ceased to get excited about these calls because no one has ever come through with the money to do it. Many have called, but none have handed me a check.
I invite you! I invite your readers! Do you think it would be a good movie?
Dave: Maybe. Could be great or could be not-so-great, I guess, depending who adapted it.
Royte: I think Tapir would be a good movie. It's such a weird world of insular, competitive, under-socialized people. And then you get some unsuspecting, naïve person like me settling down in the middle of them.
Dave: Who plays you? Julia Roberts channeling Erin Brockovich as Elizabeth Royte?
Royte: Oh, no. Someone asked years ago, and I said that Leonardo DiCaprio would play me.
Dave: They can do amazing things in Hollywood.
Royte: I just saw a Jodie Foster movie called Nims Island with my daughter. Jodie Foster — she could play me.
Dave: Any last words on water?
Royte: I urge people to learn about the real social and environmental impacts of bottled water, and to learn what's going on with their own water supply. Don't just assume that it's bad. Test the water if you have any doubts, find out if there are any contaminants, and if you have concerns get a good filter, on-tap or under the sink. And get a good reusable bottle.
If there isn't public support for municipal water supplies, it will be difficult to ask people to accept rate increases or support bond offers to maintain them. People will feel like, I'm not drinking from it. Why should my tax dollars go there? That will only result in deterioration of our water supplies. Only those people who can afford to drink good water, in hygienically sealed plastic bottles, will have access. Everyone else will be left to drink increasingly inferior public water supplies.
As I say in the book, paraphrasing Wendell Berry talking about food, learn all you can, and then drink with the fullest pleasure, pleasure that doesn't depend on ignorance.
Elizabeth Royte spoke from Rhinebeck, New York, on July 25, 2008.