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Daniel Jaffee on the Campbell Conversations

Daniel Jaffee

Program transcript:

Grant Reeher: Welcome to the Campbell Conversations, I’m Grant Reeher. Perhaps one of the less well known frontiers of environmentalism and sustainability concerns the problems with bottled water. You know, the one you probably drank from the last day or so, and maybe you finished it and maybe you recycled the empty bottle afterwards. My guest today has written a new book about the subject titled,, "Unbottled: The Fight against Plastic Water and for Water Justice". Daniel Jaffee is a professor of sociology at Portland State University in Oregon. Professor Jaffee, welcome to the program.

Daniel Jaffee: Thanks, Grant. Great to be here.

GR: Well, we're glad you could spend some time with us. So let me just start with a very basic first question, briefly, if you could. How did you get the idea to write this book at this time?

DJ: Well, I was interested in, I had been interested before in the controversial issue of water privatization, more broadly and was, as someone concerned, I'm an environmental sociologist, I'm concerned about the relationship between environment and society. I was very interested in what the implications are of the market having more control over different areas of nature. And there were a lot of social movements, very vocal around proposals to or actual plans to privatize drinking water supplies, tap water supplies around the world, and then also in the U.S. And gradually I started realizing that bottled water was kind of a less recognized frontier in this process of increasing private or market control over our increasingly scarce fresh water worldwide. And so I started digging into this process and discovered a whole interesting set of movements that had emerged in response to the growth of this product.

GR: Interesting. Yeah, I want to get into some of those bigger questions in a minute, but let me just kind of lay the groundwork here. First of all, about the water itself. Beyond the packaging, what's the actual difference between most bottled water and tap water?

DJ: It is important to get a handle on what's actually in those bottles. Worldwide, a little less than half of all bottled water on the shelves comes from groundwater in some form, springs or wells. But in the U.S., it's less. In the U.S., many may not be aware, nearly two thirds of the water that's being sold on the shelves that we drink is actually sourced just from tap water supplies, it is extracted from municipal public water systems by bottling companies and often re-filtered, they strip out the minerals. They add their own proprietary mineral mixes, you know, so that Dasani, for example, would taste the same in New York State as it does in Oregon over here, and that's it. Only about a third plus comes from those springs as pristine springs and lakes that you see emblazoned on the labels and so that's a paradox. And the fact bottled water is linked to growing distrust of tap water seems pretty ironic given that fact.

GR: Yeah, I've seen the growing distrust of tap water, and it's a conversation that I have with my son from time to time. Also, for the backdrop here, give me an idea of the recent trajectories of the consumption of bottled water and soda and if you know it, of tap water. I know that bottled water has been going way up and I think soda has been going down. But I don't know if anybody knows how much tap water people are drinking.

DJ: Right. So I start the book with sort of a confessing that I'm old enough now to remember that when I was in grade school back in the 1980's, Americans in 1980 consumed only two gallons per person per year on average of bottled water and it was mostly, you know, Perrier and those heavy glass bottles, it was a luxury product. No, there was no such thing as mass produced private single use, plastic, bottled water. And somehow we got from that situation to today where Americans are consuming over 47 gallons per person per year and it is coming to us in those lightweight PET bottles. And really it's fascinating because in the US, in a place where the great majority of the population has the privilege of access to very clean overall tap water on demand 24/7, nearly nine and ten people say they consume some bottled water. And really surprisingly, recent stats show that one in five Americans get all of their plain water from a bottle, they shun the tap entirely for drinking. And so that trajectory has been almost entirely steady upward slope with one little dip in the Great Recession. And I show in the early part of my introduction a graph that looks like an X. Soda is sort of in inexorable decline replaced by bottled water's dramatic rise and two lines intersect in 2016 and bottled water is now the most sold packaged beverage not just in the U.S., but around the world. And just incidentally as a bookmark, that means that it is responsible for the biggest slice of the global problem of plastic bottle pollution which is on the order of something like 600 to 700 billion single use plastic bottles being disposed of each year.

GR: Interesting. You know, in terms of being able, what you can remember, I've got your beat because I can remember when Perrier was first introduced in the United States. Now, the bottled water companies come into play heavily in your book, particularly in terms of this larger issue of privatization of water that you mentioned at the beginning of our conversation. I wanted to ask you a question about that specifically. The bottled water companies claim that they're not in competition with tap water. They're only in competition with soda, beer, other bottled beverages. Is that true? Is that a realistic claim?

DJ: It's an important question, and it is actually a central claim of the industry. Very briefly, I talk about the big four firms who have dominated or at least led the industry in the US and abroad around the world. They're very familiar household names, food and beverage companies, Nestle, Coke, Pepsi and Danone. They are the four leading firms, and some of them, as people might be aware, Pepsi and Coke, for example, only sell re-filtered tap water in their bottles, Dasani, Aquafina other brands. But the claim that they don't compete with tap water is an important claim because the industry has many critics, and those critics have often charged that the bottled water industry is contributing to increasing public distrust of tap water through its marketing, whether it's overt or subtly implying that tap water might be unsafe to drink or less safe. And the industry's response, as you say, is, no, no, no, we are not in competition with tap water. We are in competition with soda, juice, beer, milk and all those other beverages. And so I dig into those claims and I look at a range of evidence around that question. I look at marketing literature, I look at industry reports, internal discourse by the industry statements by beverage executives and some stats which are relatively challenging to get on changes in tap water use. And here's what I found, it is certainly true, as I said already, that bottled water gain has been in part sodas' loss. Many people have switched from consuming unhealthy sodas to less unhealthy plastic bottles of bottled water. But it is also true that bottled waters' gain has undeniably also been a result of dramatically falling top water consumption here in the US, the statistics are clear. Tap water consumption has dropped dramatically, particularly among certain economic and other social groups, we can talk about it a little bit later. And so what I conclude is that the industry's claim that its growth has not come at the cost of the tap simply doesn't hold water.

GR: You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher and I'm speaking with Daniel Jaffee. He's a professor at Portland State University and the author of a new book titled, “Unbottled: The Fight against Plastic Water and for Water Justice”. I wanted to ask you another question about those four big companies you mentioned. But first, I'd be remiss with our listeners here in Central New York if I didn't mention that this area is one of those areas that is renowned for its quality drinking water, tap water. And I notice the difference when I travel other places, particularly, I go to Washington a lot in D.C. and the water tastes awful the first couple of days I'm there. And so it really is remarkable to see the number of bottled water drinkers that I see around here, because we live in one of these places that's supposed to have great water. But let's talk about these four companies. And they do kind of figure as villains, I think, of sorts in your book. And you mention them and, you know, I don't recall seeing bottled water with Coca-Cola on the label or Nestle on the label or Pepsi on the label. They have these exotic names, you mentioned a couple of them. What explains that? Are they just trying to fool us here? That that you know, I'm not I'm not getting a Pepsi product. What's going on?

DJ: I honestly can't answer your question, Grant. This is you probably need to find a marketing or branding expert to really answer that question. But I think it's true across the board in food products, we often don't see the parent brands and that might be for a variety of reasons. And certainly the you know, there is an effort to have consumers believe they're buying from more of a mom and pop company. But Coke's brand is Dasani, Pepsi's brand is Aquafina. Danone does not sell a lot of its own brands here in the U.S. and Nestle, interestingly enough, and this may maybe getting ahead of the game, but Nestle due to a variety of factors including falling profits and competition from cheaper brands, in 2021 sold its entire U.S. and Canadian bottling operations and all its seven spring water brands and wells and sold it out to a private equity venture which has the name BlueTriton. And there's actually just a piece in the New York Times a couple of days ago about BlueTriton's extraction of groundwater in Maine. So they've taken over Nestle's business and so they have become the fifth largest global bottled water company.

GR: Interesting. Well, let's get to some of these bigger questions that your book opens up. And you write about the connections between environmental concerns and bottled water. And I can certainly see how those are connected. You know, the bottles themselves, as you mentioned, you know, the other ways in which this is just cutting into something that we don't need, it's not as sustainable as tap water. But you also write about the connections between social justice and bottled water. And that connection, I think, is harder to see in an obvious way. So tell me a little bit more about that connection.

DJ: Right. And this was actually honestly even a surprise to me as I dug into the research for this book. The standard narrative, and I think it's one that I partly even had in my own mind is that, you know, think back to the days of Perrier and those glass bottles and sort of selling it based on snob appeal if you want, a luxury product, right? And the standard narrative, the conventional story is that bottled water is a discretionary product that is most consumed by folks with a bit of disposable income. And, you know, the argument would be that if your income falls, you buy less bottled water and you turn back to the tap. And that certainly was true in the industry's early decade, maybe the 90's, when when the industry grew really dramatically but I think what we are finding is that in at least in the U.S., the evidence points in a very different and surprising direction. Which is that it turns out that bottled water is not just a controversial product with a range of negative environmental impacts, but it turns out to be very deeply linked to the, sort of the social justice crisis of uneven access to safe and affordable water, you know, here in the U.S. as well as abroad. And to jump to the chase, there is a problem of uneven distrust in tap water because our tap water problems in the U.S. are unevenly distributed. It's really only something like 7 to 8% of water systems across the U.S. on average, ever even have one health related violation of that federal regulation, the Safe Drinking Water Act in any given year. And most of those are remedied quite quickly. But the problems, the recurring problems tend to fall in particular kinds of communities. Low income communities, rural communities, small water systems. And these are often in places that are disproportionately low income and home to disproportionate populations of people of color.

GR: You start you start your book with Flint, by the way, and that's what immediately comes to mind, yeah.

DJ: High populations of communities of color, particularly black and latino, as well as indigenous communities. And it is among those groups, the folks, I think it's fair to say, who are sort of on the losing end of the uneven deterioration of public water infrastructure here in the U.S., who expressed the highest concern about their tap water quality and who buy the most bottled water now in the U.S. and who spend the most doing it, despite the fact that these are groups on average who are the least able to afford that extra spending. That spending can go from the hundreds of dollars per year to if like many millions of people, you're relying on bottled water for not just drinking water but your entire cooking, now we're talking into the thousands of dollars per year. Some folks in some of the academic studies, some families, low income families, we're spending 12 or even 16% of household income to acquire bottled water on top of water bills that are rising rapidly. So, you know, I like to say we don't have so much a widespread water safety problem in the U.S. as much as a water injustice problem. And those water crises like Flint, like Jackson, Mississippi and others, unfortunately, I mean, those are indicative of some of the deterioration of our water systems. But they also, as I imagine you could figure out, they have a disproportionate effect on scaring many more people who live outside of those affected areas about the quality of tap water overall.

GR: You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher and I'm talking with Daniel Jaffee. He's a sociology professor at Portland State University and the author of a new book titled, “Unbottled: The Fight against Plastic Water and for Water Justice”. And we've been discussing the issues that are raised in his book. So, when you were talking before the break about this connection that is related to social justice, which was not obvious when you first think about it, it's very interesting and disturbing, but it makes sense once you say it. I couldn't help but think of the same type of argument about food for a lot of under-served groups, particularly in inner cities, and that they pay a lot more just to feed themselves because you have these food deserts where there isn't a lot of competition and the larger grocery stores. And this strikes me as a different version of that problem. But I wanted to hear more about Flint, because you do start the book that way and it does come into your story at several points along the way. So tell me a little more about how Flint plays into all this.

DJ: Right. Okay, so Flint in some ways has become kind of emblematic of this newly discovered crisis of threats to tap water in the U.S. In some ways, some of the factories in Flint were unique in that Flint was subjected to an unelected emergency manager who whose authority overrode the local city council and who made some of the fateful decisions to switch Flint away from the Detroit water system and onto the polluted Flint River, as well as other very problematic decisions. But in the broader sense, I think the case of Flint is very important and I think it has some larger lessons around these questions. So, of course, first of all, in a situation of toxic or unsafe tap water, local people, local populations absolutely need a safe, immediate alternative source of emergency drinking water, that's undeniable. And in the early days, according to some of the folks I interviewed, activists and local residents in Flint organized and they demanded immediate access to distribution of free bottled water as a way to get something they could drink. However, what I say is, they actually were not demanding bottled water per se. What they were demanding was safe water. And digging into some of the details of the Flint disaster really revealed some interesting things. One is that both Michigan's governor and many of the local groups, activist groups were asked were requesting a disaster declaration from the federal government it was the Obama administration at the time. They believe that that disaster declaration would open the door for bulk deliveries of trucked in, bulk safe water in tanker trucks and in these things called water buffaloes, where residents can bring their own containers and fill up in bulk. That declaration was denied. The federal government said no, and as a result those millions, or actually hundreds of millions of bottles of plastic single serving bottled water distributed at these distribution points with people lining up in their cars or on foot for hours just to get two cases, became kind of emblematic of that crisis. And those images circulated around the world. We've all seen them that one point in one way, it's priceless PR for the industry. But I think also it's, you know, sort of more troubling because it might inculcate the notion that that is a natural or an obvious way to to access potable water. And I think, you know, one thing we could think, I'd like to think about counterfactual, hypothetical. You know, what, if the Flint crisis, for example, happened in the U.S. at a time where we didn't have the alternative of that ready availability of those millions of bottles of plastic bottled water, what if that had happened to 1980 for example? I think, obviously have to speculate, but I think more than likely what would have happened is there would have been immediate bulk deliveries of tanker truck water of course, and a lot more political pressure on the state, the local and federal administrations to stop this embarrassment and to get those pipes out of the ground, those damaged pipes and replace them and solve this problem. And I think that bottled water is ready availability, its portability and the fact that the pilot population has become accustomed to it, reduces the perceived urgency of fixing the root causes of drinking water problems. And in some ways, it can serve as a crutch for cash strapped local officials who would otherwise have to make very painful fiscal decisions around raising revenues. And the federal government has cut its contribution to drinking water infrastructure by something like 80% over the past 45 or so years. So I think that's where bottled water connects both to social justice and also to this deterioration in process through disinvestment in our public water systems.

GR: That's really interesting. If you've just joined us, you're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media and my guest is Daniel Jaffee. I wanted to give you a chance in this last part of our program to talk about some of the things that people are doing to resist these trends and also to get your sense of what you would recommend if you had a magic wand. But let me just ask you this one real specific question about water before I do that that relates back to this area. And we can be real quick on this one. We do have a spring water bottling plant in the area, it's called Nirvana Spring. And I pass it on my way to a cabin in the Adirondack foothills. They emphasize that location in their advertising, obviously. I'm also thinking of Coors beer which emphasizes that it uses Rocky Mountain Spring Water. Is there anything about proximity to mountains that makes water better or even different?

DJ: I'm not a geologist and I'm not a hydrologist, I can't really say that. I can say that in places like Europe, you know, spring water is much more important to drinkers and they're much more interested in the mineral attributes of specific springs and their relationship to them. That's not such a big element in the U.S., and that's why we have about two thirds of our water coming from tap water. And the surprise perhaps is that folks don't find that objectionable, but spring water does sell for a bit more and at least historically, there's been a bit more profit in selling it.

GR: Okay, well there have been movements against bottled water to, “reclaim the tap”. and you write about those too. So tell me about those, how successful have they been? What are some of the methods, you know, that kind of thing?

DJ: Yeah, I'm glad you asked that because that's, you know, in some ways really the heart of this book is the push back or the alternatives. And I find this resistance or this opposition in a range of different places somewhat surprising. Very briefly, I talk first about one facet, which is sort of local community efforts that have happened in very specific places where the industry is either extracting groundwater or spring water or would like to do so. And I have sort of two deep case studies, one in Oregon, in the Columbia River Gorge and one maybe in your listening region in the tip of southwestern Ontario. In Wellington County, where a coalition of water advocacy groups, indigenous activists and local residents and others have resisted for several years the proposals by Nestle and now by BlueTriton to expand its existing bottling there. But the second facet of these movements and probably the one that's much, much more widespread and might be more relevant to more people, more listeners, is just what you said, what I sort of lumped together as the reclaiming the tap facet of this resistance, of this response. And that is just a fascinating constellation of efforts by local government officials, city governments, nonprofit organizations, environmental groups, universities, university students, high school students even, to essentially revalue or re-valorize tap water and sort of rediscover the value and the importance of this overwhelmingly high quality, nearly free product, right? The average cost per gallon of tap water is something like a half a cent per gallon and there's a turning back to the tap that is really can no longer be ignored. These communities across the board, big cities and small. So we've got San Francisco and we've got L.A. and New York City, but also a range of smaller communities are installing hundreds, in many cases, of these shiny new water fountains with bottle refilling apparatuses, the bottle re-fillers. Some of them are these high tech ones that tell you how many bottles of plastic bottles of water you avoided by filling up your refilling. And they are shiny and crucially, they're attractive. And I think that attractiveness is very important. We have a couple of decades of deterioration of our water fountains. I think we've lost the public water fountain as a public resource.

GR: I just used one today! (laughter)

DJ: But they sometimes are hard to find. But what's really amazing about this facet ,and it is now, I think it's sort of fused with a lot of the energy in the climate change movements and in the movements concerned about single use plastics. And we really are seeing this interest in refilling and taking the form, especially of young people, walking around with these refillable bottles, metal bottles, not just them, their parents as well. And so people are looking for places to refill, have phone apps like the refill app that are telling them where to find them. And these initiatives are coming together and the industry is starting to pay attention. It actually does seem to be taking a bite out of bottled water sales in the U.S. and Canada and beyond.

GR: We have some of those facilities here at Syracuse University, and it's been driven, I think, by those concerns. We only got about a minute and a half left, but I want to give you a chance to put forward, you know, if you were the water policy czar, what kinds of changes would you like to make? Would you want to just ban bottled water outright? What would you do?

DJ: Well, I think at the city level and at the level of public institutions like universities and local governments where the water is clean, safe and available, yeah, a lot of cities and universities are choosing to actually ban the sales of bottled water, either on city property or on university property. And then the flip side of that is investing in expanding access to tap water. But I go beyond that. I think there are a lot of really great access points, schools are one that we haven't mentioned. Folks who are involved in their schools, PTA, school boards, that's a crucial place where we could restore availability of water fountains and refilling stations. And there's been some very cool things happening around the country along those veins. The Filter First movement is something to look up online. Well, let me say, I think there are a whole slew of things that could happen at the local or state or federal level around water justice in making sure that we don't move toward that two-tiered drinking water society that I was sort of talking about. And I think there, well, let me just say the federal level is crucial, and I think the federal government absolutely needs to reinvest at a substantial level in restoring the condition of our public water infrastructure. There is a bill right now in Congress called the WATER Act, it would dedicate $35 billion a year to a trust fund that would essentially restore the federal government's role in maintaining and supporting, dealing with some of these new chemicals like PFAS and also dealing with the affordability crisis that's getting worse. And it would deal with the problem of water shutoff. So I think people could look into the Water Act and 35 billion might sound like a lot, but it's less than the $46 billion that Americans spent in 2022 to buy bottled water.

GR: That's a good place to end. That was Daniel Jaffee, and again his book is titled, “Unbottled: The Fight against Plastic Water and for Water Justice”. And it's a real interesting way to take a lens on something fairly specific and then have broader discussions about bigger issues that come out of it. It was a really, really nice job on that book. Dan, thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me. Again, a very provocative topic.

DJ: Thanks so much, Grant. I really enjoyed talking to you.

GR: You've been listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media, conversations in the public interest.



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Grant Reeher is Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also creator, host and program director of “The Campbell Conversations” on WRVO, a weekly regional public affairs program featuring extended in-depth interviews with regional and national writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals.