Worse, environmentalists say, all those bottles may be despoiling the very landscapes depicted on their labels. Each year, the World Wildlife Fund estimates, around 1.5 million tons of plastic are used in water bottles. According to the Berkeley-based Ecology Center, most are made with the oil-derived PET, or polyethylene terephthalate, whose manufacture generates 100 times more emissions--including nickel, benzene, ethylbenzene and ethylene oxide--than an equal quantity of glass. Shipping 20 million tons of filled containers around the world consumes untold amounts of polluting fossil fuel.
Once the bottles are discarded, the damage continues. The Container Recycling Institute reports that 89% of plastic water bottles--40 million a day--end up as trash or litter. Tossed onto the roadside, they can last 1,000 years. Incinerated, they release chlorine, a greenhouse gas, into the air and create ash loaded with heavy metals. Buried in landfills, they may leach endocrine-disrupting phthalates into groundwater.
None of that, of course, has caused a consumer backlash, in part because scandals over public water supplies--most recently, the presence of lead in Washington, D.C.'s system--continue to drive Americans to the bottle. Instead, resistance is arising in communities where the water is demonstrably excellent: those whose pristine springs attract bottlers looking to meet the burgeoning demand. For a multinational corporation or an ambitious entrepreneur, bottled water can mean big profits. Unlike, say, mining or logging, there are virtually no land-use costs, and extraction is a cinch. But companies increasingly are being forced into costly legal fights with grass-roots activists who resent privatization of a public commodity--and who fear that excessive pumping will dry up wells and disrupt delicate ecosystems.
"This has come out of nowhere in the last few years," says Pacific Institute director Peter Gleick. In central Wisconsin, locals rebelled when Nestle Waters North America--the largest single U.S. bottler, with sales of $2.7 billion spread among 15 brands--began considering two sites near the Mecan River, a prize trout stream, in 1999; the company later halted its investigation. In Mecosta County, Mich., a judge recently sided with plaintiffs seeking to shut down a plant owned by Nestle subsidiary Ice Mountain. (Nestle is appealing.) However, the victories of the anti-bottling forces are often partial and temporary: Independent bottler USA Springs initially lost its bid to suck as many as 300,000 gallons a day from a spring in Nottingham, N.H., but has reapplied and received conditional approval for its operation. In Crystal Springs, Fla., opponents tried to prevent Zephyrhills--another Nestle brand--from increasing by sixfold its daily allocation of 301,000 gallons of local spring water; however, the company was given permission to draw a portion of its requested increase.
Industry representatives insist that their opponents are acting on emotion, not science. "I think a lot of it is the NIMBY issue--'not in my backyard,' " says Stephen Kay, a spokesman for the International Bottled Water Assn., which represents 80% of the nation's bottlers. "We require that the source be in compliance with all state and local guidelines. We have a policy that there should not be an adverse impact on the water source itself."
Says Jane Lazgin, Nestle's director of corporate communications: "We scientifically measure the effects of our water withdrawals. We do that with the selection of a spring site and through its ongoing operation, with monitoring of stream levels, groundwater levels, precipitation. We're always assessing the behavior of the aquifer and its response to our withdrawals. And that includes the whole ecosystem of aquatic life and wetlands and so on."
But some experts say the bottling foes have a point. "It turns out we're not very good at protecting natural springs," says Gleick, who won a 2003 MacArthur "genius" grant for his work on water conservation. "There's a rapid drive to make water a commodity, and that's occurring in the absence of adequate public protection."
The problem, says Robert Glennon, a law professor at the University of Arizona and the author of "Water Follies: Groundwater Pumping and the Fate of America's Fresh Waters," is that an aquifer--the subterranean source of a spring or well--is like a bathtub, fed by rainwater or snow-melt filtering through layers of rock or soil. "You've got what's called recharge, which is the water flowing into the tub, and discharge, which is when the water drains" naturally into the environment, Glennon says. "In a state of nature, there's an equilibrium, and the level in your tub is stable. But groundwater pumping"--whether by a bottler or another user--"introduces another process. Every drop that's pumped means one drop less that's discharged."