SEVERAL SUMMERS AGO, traveling with my parents in New Mexico, I bought some water for the long desert drive ahead. When my mother asked about drinking cups, I realized my companions were among the few Americans who don’t swig water from plastic bottles. In 2006, U.S. per capita consumption of bottled water was 27.6 gallons, Elizabeth Royte tells us in her new book, Bottlemania — but it was not always thus. Time was when tap water was the norm, and people did not tote personal water supplies like a security blanket. Between 1997 and 2006, U.S. sales of bottled water grew 170 percent, fueling what globally is now a $60-billion-a-year business. According to The Economist, bottled water, once encased in disposable plastic, can cost a thousand times more than tap and is often — liter for liter — pricier than gas.
To examine how this happened and what this fast-paced, high-volume market for bottled water may be doing to the environment, Royte — a New York–based journalist who writes personably and engagingly about environmental subjects ranging from jungle wildlife to garbage — went to Maine. There, water marketed with the Poland Springs label has been bottled since 1845. Now part of the Nestlé empire, Poland Springs operations have turned the town of Fryeburg into what Royte calls the “epicenter of Maine’s water wars.” Questions of ownership, access, environmental impacts (of extracting and bottling), and claims about water source — and therefore quality — all play into the debate.
Throughout the amiably narrated and informative Bottlemania, Royte uses Fryeburg, a small community run by New England town meetings, as a microcosm of the national and global concerns over bottled water. Does commercial bottling deplete local aquifers already drying under pressures of development and climate change and compromised by pollution? Is the marketing of bottled water deterring use of tap water in ways that undermine maintenance of safe public water supplies? What’s in our water, and those plastic bottles, anyway? Bottlemania comes at a time of some backlash against bottled water (to which Royte devotes a chapter). It will make you think twice before reaching for bottled when tap water would do as well.