Originally providing succour to joggers, bottled water is now a lifestyle accessory and even a component in the beauty regimens of the stars. So how did we get from bubblers to big business? The List investigates.
‘I’m sitting here with a bottle of water in front of me, even though I’m not experiencing thirst!’
Emily Potter is not alone. The world is saturated with bottled water. You probably have a bottle on your desk right now. The Deakin University communications lecturer believes that joggers are to blame.
‘There was a rise of jogging in the 1970s and into the 80s,’ she says.
This cultural shift dovetailed neatly with the rise of exercise science. The ‘jogging body’ was one that had to be well-hydrated. As jogging became more and more popular, so too did this idea of the ‘hydrated body’.
There were technological advances, too. Plastic had first been used in bottles in the 1940s, though it wasn’t until the 1970s that plastic bottles were used for soft drinks. The difference was polyethylene terephthalate: PET (or the curiously anthropomorphic and seldom-used ‘PETE’) bottles. Lightweight, low-cost, durable: it was magic for distributors.
The rise of commodified water came with, as Potter puts it, ‘a correlative decrease in the availability of public water in public spaces’. And while Potter does recognise a certain aesthetic appeal in portable potable water—’there’s a normativity and fashionability, depending on the brand’—she notes that primarily, these days, people carry bottled water for pragmatic reasons. Where else would water be?
Even our very behaviour has changed to reflect this new drinking paradigm. ‘The idea of thirst has been displaced,’ Potter reasons. ‘Thirst is no longer a trustworthy register of our need to drink.’
Bottled water brands, and to an extent public health measures, encourage the notion of a society that is ever-sipping.
PET bottles are a wonder of chemical engineering, but they do have a downside. They’re semiporous: food and drink molecules stick to the plastic. Most PET plastic melts at the temperatures required for food-grade sterilisation. Once discarded, PET water bottles will never be bottles again. They will be ‘downcycled’, becoming carpets.
Over the course of her research, Potter and her team travelled to three different cities—Hanoi, Chennai and Bangkok, to explore the impact of and changing attitudes to bottled water. How does a water bottle become a carpet? It could be in one of Hanoi’s many plastic waste villages. These are the outposts where, in Potter’s parlance, ‘the externalities of the bottled water market globally’ are dealt with. Plastic refuse is broken into tiny scraps, called flakes, which are then bleached and disinfected.
‘You have non-existent safety standards, people breaking down PET bottles into plastic flakes, chemical processes which involve toxic fumes,’ Potter says of her time in Vietnam’s plastic waste villages.
‘One thing that’s confronting is you see children working in these environments with their parents. It’s the industry of the village—plastic bottles are everywhere, piles and piles of them.’ The only protection Potter observed was facemasks.
Corporations with skin in the plastic water game—and the Australian market is dominated by two of them—have long-standing associations with charitable organisations. Bottled water is sold to remote Indigenous communities in areas with poor public water infrastructure and high soft drink consumption.
‘In my interviews with Coca-Cola Amatil,’ Potter says, ‘they did say they were bringing an essential service to the community.’
Or were they just creating another market? Well, Potter cautions, not really. ‘It’s extraordinary, but in a sense right. There wasn’t good water available before they bought it in a purchasable product.’
It’s tempting to think that fashionable environmentalism has done in a culture of consumption, that the ‘moment’ of bottled water is at an end. Suppliers of water bottles and filters have campaigned on a ‘filter for good‘ platform, in recognition of environmental impact of plastic.
Aluminium bottles, however, require an enormous amount of energy to produce. Perhaps we are now post-water: living in an age of bespoke agua, mineral water hair supplements and home carbonation products.
Potter warns against this line of reasoning. ‘The availability, the portability of the PET bottle is what makes it such an ongoingly seductive product.’
Bottled water, she says, is status symbol in growth markets such as Chennai, where it is fuelling unwarranted distrust of municipal sources.
‘There’s no end, just an expansion,’ Potter muses.
‘It is the stuff of life. It gets people going.’
Read more on The ABC.