The water cure

Pub date April 2, 2008

The recently launched campaign against bottled water in restaurants — Food and Water Watch’s "Take Back the Tap" program ( — makes a number of sensible points, most of which have to do with the drastic wastefulness of bottled water. Bottled water has to be bottled, typically in plastic vessels (whose manufacture uses 17.6 million barrels of oil a year in the United States alone, according to FWW); those bottles then have to be shipped — more fossil fuel used, who knows how much? — and disposed of once they’re empty. Recycling is a noble ideal, but FWW says 86 percent of our plastic water bottles end up in landfills. Many of the rest can be found in urban gutters, along with the dead leaves.

But this is only part of the story. Of course bottled water is a socioeconomic affectation in this country; it’s an aping of a European practice that isn’t completely irrational in the old country, where there is a long tradition of waterborne illness and where many large cities still take their municipal water supplies from heavily used rivers. If you’ve ever drunk a glass of tap in Berlin, you know it’s not Evian.

These exigencies don’t apply here. But we’ve certainly been told, through relentless advertising, that bottled water is chic and somehow more healthful. Bottled water can be branded, and branding is a powerful instrument of class identity, whereas tap water is a public resource, practically free, and didn’t Ronald Reagan convince us a generation ago that if it was public it was probably bad? Even if municipal water doesn’t give you cholera, it won’t confer social standing on you either, not the way a bottle of Voss will.

Tap water in this basic sense is part of the commonweal, the public square, which free-market evangelists have spent several decades trying to cut up and sell off to private interests. Doubtless there are those who would charge us for breathing if they could figure out how. This is why choosing tap over bottled in a public setting is a statement of political as well as environmental awareness. We’re mad as hell, and we’re not going to drink it anymore!

Suggestion to restaurants: don’t even tell patrons you have bottled water, if you do. Treat it like tobacco: legal but neither preferred nor promoted. Maybe those who insist on bottled water should be obliged to join the smokers outside.

Paul Reidinger