July 28, 2007

Aquafina Scandal

The bottled water industry has come under increasing criticism of late, and not always from predictable sources. Its most obvious vulnerability, one might expect, is price. Lately, however, bottled water has been criticized by environmentalists for the resources used in packaging and transportation, and for the low rate at which plastic bottles are recycled.

Last night, ABC News, which frequently airs consumer-interest stories, telecast one about PepsiCo’s Aquifina. Viewers, apparently, were expected to be upset by the revelation that Aquafina draws its raw material from municipal water systems. PepsiCo has now agreed to acknowledge this on its Aquafina labels. This likely will not satisfy critics who charge that the advertising of the bottled water industry generally, which emphasizes purity and taste, is defaming municipal water systems and undermining consumer confidence in them.

Was this really one of the top news stories of the day? Are people actually staying awake at night worrying whether their tap water is safe to drink because Aquafina promises “Pure Water, Perfect Taste”? Not likely.

I am not a big consumer of bottled water, but bottled water is a product that has its place. It is certainly a healthy alternative to soft drinks, though I do object to paying the same price for a bottle of Aquafina as I would for a bottle of Pepsi Cola, which is surely more expensive to make. (We might be surprised to learn how little more.) I also feel manipulated when an establishment I might reasonably expect to have a water cooler sells bottled water instead.

I grew up in a family that always kept a container of tap water in the refrigerator for drinking. The water, perhaps, did not have Aquafina’s “Perfect Taste,” but it seemed good enough at the time. Whether because of maturation or the pernicious influence of advertising, I have more sensitive taste now, and I do prefer the taste of many bottled waters, but filtered water from a dispensing refrigerator isn’t such a bad alternative.

I do hope that no one was being “fooled” by Aquafina, with its label sporting a sunset beyond the mountains (or is it a water spot on a seismograph chart?). The packaging makes it perfectly clear that the water is not “mineral water” (from a spring, say) and has nothing added to it, as does Dasani, for example, which contains added salt. If the product is, as the label says, “purified drinking water,” it really makes no difference whether the raw product comes from a spring, a river, a municipal water plant, a wastewater plant, or is made directly from oxygen and hydrogen. The filtration, reverse osmosis, and other steps in Aquafina’s HydRO-7™ process frankly produces an excellent tasting water—perhaps I mean tasteless water—and I couldn’t care less where the water comes from. Anyone who insists that drinking water should come from a pure mountain stream or spring should buy a microscope and get outdoors.

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