January 20th, 2016
Closing the Water Park
Once upon a time, the notion of bottled water was exotic to American sensibilities. I recall first encountering the mystery of water in bottles on an early journey to Europe, where I discovered that restaurants did not habitually serve a glass of iced water. Requesting water usually resulted in the arrival of a bottle which, upon further examination, was inevitably sourced from a particular spring. What I recall the most is that they all had — to a greater or lesser degree — an awful, chalky, parching taste. And that the ice which might have killed the taste never put in an appearance.
Unbeknownst to me, back in the Lower 48, there was such a thing as bottled water; sixteen brands were on sale, somewhere. But that was then and this is now and the number of brands are pushing 200 and Americans guzzle an average of 21 gallons per capita per year — or over nine billion gallons when you add it all together.
There are some other interesting numbers, such as the fact that bottled water is 1,000% more expensive than tap and that fifteen hundred bottles are consumed every second in the US. Or that it takes 17 million barrels of oil to make those 50 billion bottles every year, of which four-fifths end up un-recycled and choking your local landfill. I’m particularly partial to the irony of how the machinery of making bottles uses three gallons of water to make a one-gallon bottle.
Given that universally available and potable tap water is one of the marquee achievements of American civilization, the rise of bottled water represents a triumph of marketing, and don’t think the marketeers don’t know it: a Pepsi VP once crowed to investors, “when we’re done, tap water will be relegated to showers and washing dishes.” Impressive boast, especially from an industry which sources just under 50% of its product from the tap.
That disparaged tap may feel like old news, but our public water infrastructure is remarkably new. We owe it to the time between 1948, when the Federal Water Pollution Control Act put the resources of D.C. behind building and maintaining a national system, and 1974, when the Safe Drinking Water Act established standards of what was allowed in tap water. It created a system that was the envy of the world, with an emphasis on the was, since the R&D which built that system is now fifty years old, funding has totally dried up, and the American Society of Civil Engineers rates the US water infrastructure at a “D,“ pointing out that we need to rebuild the whole thing, and pronto.
There’s a certain irony lurking here, because our larger corporate “persons” tend towards a dim view of public goods like infrastructure, unless, of course, they can find a way to turn a profit off of it. In contrast, public bads are eagerly embraced. Take, for instance, Coca-Cola, which drove the shift from glass bottles to plastic ones. They sold plastic as a convenience: unbreakable, you know, and lighter, too. But there was an advantage for Coke, too, in that by shifting from glass to plastic, they unloaded responsibility for those bottles. In the glass era, Coke was on the hook for bringing the glass back to the mothership and reusing it. But plastic — recycled or dumped as trash, take your pick — devolved both its costs and responsibilities onto anyone but the seller. We pay for recycling pickup and processing, we pay for landfills. Clever, that.
This is the background against which the International Bottled Water Association, ($13 billion annual revenue) has gone to war with the National Parks Service (annual budget $2 billion). Several years back, Jonathan Jarvis, director of the NPS, took note that his parks were (a) being trashed with discarded water bottles, which (b) cost a small fortune to cart off to recycling plants. So he gave his park administrators the freedom to remove bottled water from offerings inside the parks, and to compensate by making reusable bottles and filling stations available. One guess how this went over at the IBWA.
They began throwing money at Congress (around a half million) until they found a — how shall we say? — “suggestible” congressman in the shape of Keith Rothfus (R-PA), who stuffed a last minute amendment into an appropriations bill which forbid the Parks Service from using taxpayer money to stop selling bottled water. That’s right, “we’re cutting off your funding unless you let IBWA sell bottled water in the parks.”
Interesting. And a little curious, too, when you consider just how tiny a fraction of IBWA’s sales must come from the parks. Perhaps they’re still smarting from how the Australian town of Bundanoon (Pop. 2,419) banned bottled water sales back in 2009, thus mooting an idea that has found favor at Concord, Massachusetts, the University of Vermont, and municipal facilities all over Canada.
Rothfus’ amendment got the boot, but IBWA is nothing if not persistent. In the last days of 2015, Congress passed a 1.8 trillion dollar budget bill with an easter egg to the IBWA hidden inside. It’s a requirement for the Parks Service to, within 60 days, economically justify each park’s ban by calculating costs and savings. This is a bit of a trick, because the Parks Service had previously disclosed that fractioning their waste stream to determine the percentage of water bottles was something that would cost time and money that they don’t have. Apparently, someone was listening.
We’re still in the sixty day window, so it’s anyone’s guess as to how this battle is going to play out. The war, on the other hand, is becoming clearer. Now, typically, oil and water don’t mix, but there’s a distinct echo to IBWA’s obstreperousness in the lawsuit that Canadian oil company TransCanada has just filed against the United States.
In a preview of what’s to come if the TPP and TAFTA trade agreements become law, TransCanada is suing the bejeezus out of the United States (“bejeezus” being the technical term for $15 Billion). The grounds are that a nation doesn’t have the right to tell a corporation “no,” as in, “no, you can’t run a poorly engineered and leak prone pipeline 1200 miles across the entire middle of the nation, threatening our largest aquifer as well as violating a spectrum of tribal and property rights, not to mention fueling climate change at a rate of 800,000+ barrels per day.”
Basing their suit on language from NAFTA that’s been cut and pasted into the text of the TPP, TransCanada is seeking reimbursement for its sunk costs and for — here’s the juicy part — “expected future profits.” Really, it’s a story that we should all keep close tabs on, seeing as we non-corporate persons are the ones who are set to be making good on the disappointed dreams of various large corporations.
Details aside, what I see in TransCanada and IBWA is the queasy surfacing of a mindset that’s been a long-time fantasy, namely the notion that big corporations cannot be prevented from selling, and that anything which interferes with selling can be considered a crime of sorts. Apparently, it doesn’t matter if we don’t want what they’re selling, if their products unload all manner of costs on ourselves in particular or the world at large, the fight to cash in regardless of consequences is reaching a climax, and we find ourselves waking up in the endgame of a campaign to make profit an inalienable right.
I find it, in a word, strange. Perhaps even unacceptable and, given the cloak of invisibility in which the texts of the TPP and the TAFTA have been swaddled, I suspect that even very large corporations know it’s foolish to say some things out loud. But still, there are circumstances where unacceptable thoughts will creep into the light. Like when those thoughts belong to people who feel they have all the power. Or when those thoughts belong those who have nothing left to lose.
It seems unassailable that we’re in the first circumstance here, what with the lines between commerce and government so hopelessly blurred. But in spite of that, I hear a discernible note of panic.
The IBWA’s hysteria over the Parks Service decision — only implemented at some two dozen out of more than 400 national parks — doesn’t feel like the action of a confident industry composed of some of the world’s largest corporations, like Nestle, Pepsi and Coke. Instead, it strikes me as a kind of reflex, like the thrashing that ensues when you feel something biting you, but can’t tell what it is. Maybe it’s the image of those archetypal family outings to the parks that gives the IBWA fits. Maybe in the corporate imagination (assuming there is such a thing) they see families exploring together and, particularly, they see children. Maybe they even see the dusty climb, the children grumbling until the moment the trail turns and they encounter a wonder that redeems the struggle. Those moments tend to etch into memory, particularly when one pauses to take it all in — and perhaps quench one’s thirst. Maybe the fear is that, in the formative memories of future customers, the most welcome water came from a canteen, and not from a branded container.
Of course, I may be wrong. Perhaps they don’t think about any of those things and just want every last penny they can possibly squeeze.