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Kai Ryssdal: If your supermarket’s anything like mine, it’s got an entire aisle devoted exclusively to water. Now, maybe I live in a very water-conscious neighborhood, I don’t know, but I don’t think that’s the case because bottled water is a $60 billion a year industry.
But why? Why do so many of us pay so much for something we can literally get almost for free?
That’s the question Elizabeth Royte set out to answer in her latest book “Bottlemania.”
Elizabeth, good to have you with us.
Elizabeth Royte: Hi there.
Ryssdal: So let’s get the first question out of the way right up front: Is bottled water necessarily better for us?
Royte: I wish I had a really straight simple answer for you…
Ryssdal: I was hoping you would.
Royte: Water is a really local and individual issue and in general, I will say that bottled water is no better or worse for you than tap water. Bottled water has basically the same level of contaminants — things in it — that tap water does and that the government allows to be in it. Bottled water is much less inspected than tap water, so that is one big difference.
Ryssdal: I can get water out of my tap in my kitchen for a couple of bucks per thousand gallons, right?
Royte: Um… the national average is about $2.50 for a thousand….
Ryssdal: Wait, wait. Was that you taking a sip of water in the middle of this water interview?
Royte: Yeah, yeah, sorry. I’m thirsty. I’m sipping tap water.
Ryssdal: Well, that’s good then, and that goes to the question. I can turn on my tap and get, you know, a thousand gallons for a couple of bucks. Why then are people in this country and all over the world willing to pay so much on a relative scale for water that comes out of a bottle?
Royte: I think people are willing to pay more because they think that the water in the bottle is better. It took off because of very clever marketing that prayed on our ideas about health and wellness and beauty and weight loss and things like that and we were told that we needed to hydrate, hydrate, hydrate and drink 8 ounce glasses a day and so portability became really important and that marketing worked really, really well. It turned bottled water from a $150 million a year industry in 1990 to a $11.5 billion a year industry in 2007.
Ryssdal: Back when I was a kid, the bottled water — and there really was only one — was Perrier, right? In pear-shaped green bottle and it was all the rage. Did it all start there?
Royte: Well, bottled water has been around for many centuries, but essentially, the bottle water craze in this country we can trace to that. It was 1977 when Perrier was introduced and it was very much a niche product at first. Yuppies drank it, it was an urban thing. Nobody was walking down the street with that pretty green glass bottle swigging it, but the water had a certain cache: it was French, it had those great bubbles and Orson Wells did the ads and so that started us thinking about celebrity and status and the big change, actually, isn’t that dramatic. It was a technological innovation. In 1989, it became possible to put bottled water in bottles made of PET plastic — that’s the lightweight bottles — and all of a sudden, it became much easier and cheaper to put water into these bottles and that’s when the marketing tens of millions of dollars were spent pushing bottled water on us.
Ryssdal: You make your feelings pretty clear through the course of this book about the relative merits of tap water versus bottled water. I guess what I’m wondering though is do you have any real hope that the bottled water trend is going to change?
Royte: Well, first I want to say that my feelings changed over the course of the book. I wanted to find out how bottled water had become so popular and I realized that you can’t really get into that without knowing what was right or wrong about tap water. I think people really don’t know anything about where their water comes from. People don’t know whether they’re drinking groundwater or surface water, they don’t know what’s in their watershed and they just have a lot of questions about it and they don’t go and find out what’s in there and it’s really easy to find… well, it’s sort of easy to find out what is in your water. If you have any questions, test your water yourself. Shell out the money. I spent about $140, I ran all these tests and I was relieved. I was really happy to find out that my water was perfectly healthy to drink and as more people find out about the quality of their tap water, I think that they will stick with their tap water and fight to protect it.
Ryssdal: The latest book from Elizabeth Royte is called “Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It.” Elizabeth, thanks a lot for your time.
Royte: Thank you Kai.
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