No one escapes blame for our destructive addiction to bottled water in Stephanie Soechtig’s disturbing documentary: industry, government, and consumers all share responsibility.
Determined to corner the market on drinking water by vilifying municipal water systems and addicting Americans to their bottled and poorly regulated alternative, multinational corporations Nestlé (Poland Spring), Pepsi (Aquafina), and Coke (Dasani) flout the will of communities whose water they bottle, ignore scientific studies that find their product is less safe than tap water, and refuse to dedicate a portion their profits to recycling the high percentage of their bottles that are thrown away.
Thanks to bottlers’ well-funded lobbying efforts, government too often has facilitated rather than checked the marketing of bottled water. The Bush administration deservedly takes lumps in Tapped for the inaction of the FDA and EPA, while state and municipal governments are generally powerless (when they’re not clueless) on the occasions when they do try to protect water sources and the public’s right to clean water.
Consumers also come in for a generous share of criticism, and it’s the viewer as consumer as well as citizen, that Tapped targets. Elizabeth Royte, author of Bottlemania, gives a mini-history of the product to explain how Americans got hooked. Cheap, lightweight plastic bottles made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) became available in 1989, enabling Coke and Pepsi to promote bottled water as a healthier alternative to tap water, in order to make up for flagging soda sales. Americans took the bait and by 2007 bottled water was an $11.5 billion business.
Tapped presents the rise of bottled water as a move by industry to privatize what most Americans take for granted as a public resource. Bottlers exploit a “right to pump” loophole enabling any entity to remove as much water as they can from a local water table, a practice activists in Maine and elsewhere are fighting in court. Because most bottled water is sold in the state where it’s bottled—FDA regulations target interstate commerce—this business model amounts to taking a resource to which citizens already have access, through municipal water utilities, and selling it back to them at an enormous profit, leading Adweek Media critic Barbara Lippert to observe, “Bottled water is the greatest advertising and marketing trick of all time”.
Troubling enough so far. Tapped also assesses the quality of bottled water, promoted by bottlers as “pure” and “healthy”. In reality, bottled water is tested much less frequently and stringently than more heavily regulated municipal water supplies. Bottlers claim to test extensively, but refuse to make results public. Tests of a sampling of bottled water carried out for the film reveal a number of toxins, and similar findings have led to a series of recalls of bottled water in recent years. As damning as this segment is, a comparable assessment of water from a municipal system would have been helpful, to establish clearly which water source is safer.
What about the bottles? Even if you believe makers’ hype that the water they contain is safe, there is little doubt that the first stage in production of PET—refining crude oil into para-Xylene (a benzene, and thus a carcinogen)—pollutes the air and water table surrounding refineries, turning neighborhoods into sick wards. Soechtig visits one of them: the area near the Flint Hills refinery in Corpus Christi, where the rate of birth defects is 84 percent higher than the Texas average.
After the segment on PET production I was feeling pretty good about my stainless-steel water bottle, and office water co-op. My office has a water cooler with three hard-plastic five-gallon jugs that officemates take turns filling at the organic grocery a few blocks away. I didn’t gloat for long. The major component of hard plastic (polycarbonate) bottles—including many baby bottles—is bisphenol A (BPA), which can leach into bottle contents. Because it mimics hormones, even at extremely low concentrations, BPA is associated with a host of health problems: obesity, breast cancer, prostate cancer, diabetes, and low sperm count among them.
Still not convinced to give up your Aquafina habit? Consider that even though PET bottles are recyclable, just a small percentage of disposable water bottles find their way to recycling centers. Only half of Americans have curbside recycling, and because one third of water bottles are consumed away from home, it becomes even less likely that they will be recycled.
Throughout its comprehensive attack on bottled water, Tapped employs very effective cinematography. Initial scenes of pristine rural Maine recall the mise-en-scène of nature documentary. Later sequences, just as expertly composed—a water fowl making its way along a shoreline next to floating bottles and Styrofoam cups, lush greenery framing a plastic-strewn Hawaiian beach—horrify as examples of pollution because of their studied composition and the expectations for nature shots the film established earlier.
Sequences of factories where bottles are made, filled, labeled, and boxed by robotic machinery, and moved from one production stage to another by shiny conveyor belts and chutes have a kind of Willy Wonka appeal, which underscores the seductive nature of the product made there. Screen-dominating views of the huge stacks, pipes, and structures of Flint Hills present the petrochemical industry (and, by implication, bottlers), as an irresistible, inhuman force.
After making you feel angry at business, frustrated with government, guilty for polluting the planet, and afraid that you’ve poisoned yourself and your family, Tapped exhorts you to take action to counter the depredations of the bottled water industry. What to do? Buy a metal water bottle and fill it from the tap. Filter your tap water if you’re concerned about purity. Write your state government to pass a bottle bill if your state doesn’t already have one. If your state does have a bottle bill, but it doesn’t cover bottled water, ask your representative to sponsor an update.
DVD extras include short sequences, presumably edited out of an earlier cut of the Tapped, that mostly elaborate on points already made clearly in the final cut or stray a little too far from the topic of bottled water, but the section on chemicals in the water, detailing the effects of BPA on fish, should have stayed in the film. It’s clear, damning evidence.
The Tapped website offers the bonus clips available on the DVD plus an interview with the director, a blog called “The Everyday Activist” about water-related environmental issues like the oxygen-starved dead zone in the gulf of Mexico caused by fertilizer runoff into the Mississippi River, a “Take Action” section that echoes the list included at the end of the documentary, and a “Press” section with stories such as “A new wave of enviro-documentaries takes aim at eyeballs and minds”. You can buy or rent Tapped through iTunes.