There was a time when brands like Evian and Perrier conjured up images of purity and luxury. That was before bottlers everywhere got their feet wet, and drinking bottled water became a very easy and healthy way to stay hydrated and refreshed.
But now there is a growing backlash against bottled water.
Thanks to a growing green movement, phasing out water bottles — seen as the ultimate symbol of conspicuous consumption — has become the latest fad.
Sales of reusable eco-friendly bottles like Sigg or Voss Water have surged. Green-minded Web sites list locations of municipal water fill-up stations. And cities like Chicago have added an extra tax to bottled water to discourage its purchase.
Some critics of bottled water cite concerns over the environmental waste of discarded bottles; others point out that municipal water systems were delivering excellent water long before plastic became all the rage.
The latest volley in the war against bottles comes from the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which voted last month to ban bottled water from City Halls across the country, except in emergencies. From San Francisco, Calif., to Fayetteville, N.C., governments have barred water bottles from official events and even scrubbed them from government cafeterias and vending machines.
So does bottled water deserve the bad rap it’s getting?
Tara Gidus, spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, says people might not drink as much water when they’re on the go if they can’t reach for a bottle. And she says that could potentially leave them dehydrated.
Dr. Arthur Frank, medical director of the weight management program at George Washington University Medical Center, is a big supporter of tap water, but he says any water is a very good drink.
"Why ban bottled water? It's not bad for you," he said, adding that people would turn to unhealthy alternatives such as soft drinks and fruit juices if bottled water were no longer available.
"Isn't it nice that when you want to get one for convenience, it's there? And it’s the healthiest thing you can buy in the beverage cooler," said Tom Lauria, vice president for communications at the International Bottled Water Association.
According to the Beverage Marketing Corporation, Americans consumed 8.8 billion gallons of bottled water in 2007, up 6.1 percent from 2006, when the average American consumed more than 28 gallons of bottled water — the equivalent of 167 half-liter bottles. Sales topped $11.5 billion last year, with bottled water second only to carbonated soft drinks.
There's no question that bottled water tastes good, and it's good for you. The problem is that eight out of 10 of those water bottles wind up in landfills instead of recycling bins, and it can take 700 years before they begin to decompose. And given how much water we drink, that's a lot of bottles.
The key, says Lauria, is to recycle. "If you recycle, all guilt is erased," he said. "Recycling solves the problem. If it's recycled, it's ecologically safe."
But Americans aren't recycling enough, and that has become the rallying cry for groups who want to see bottles banned altogether.
The Pacific Institute, a California environmental sustainability think tank, said that bottle production required the equivalent of more than 17 million barrels of oil in 2006, not including the energy spent for transportation. And it said bottling water for Americans produces more than 2.5 million tons of carbon dioxide.
The Container Recycling Institute does not seek to ban bottled water entirely. Executive director Betty McLaughlin says it’s better than alternatives such as sugary soft drinks. The institute just wants people to recycle bottles instead of throwing them away.
"These materials are valuable," McLaughlin said. "What you have to do is say how are we going to manage it."
"Our water bottles are 100 percent recyclable," he said.
Other water bottles have seen new life as inkjet cartridges, and even decking. One Virginia company called Trex makes alternative decking, railing, fencing and trim, with 50 percent of the product coming from recycled plastic. And a Web site called designboom.com suggests reusing the bottles as champagne glasses, candle holders, even bird feeders.
But concerns over the environment aren’t the only reason why there is a push to remove bottles. Some say bottled water erodes the demand for the municipal water supply.
Corporate Accountability International says bottled water is subject to less rigorous testing than city tap water, adding that the high cost of energy to make the bottles isn’t worth the cost of a product that may not be any better than local water.
It has launched a campaign called "Think Outside the Bottle" to promote, protect and ensure public funding for public water systems by getting people to choose tap water over bottled water. Supporters include actor Martin Sheen.
Cities like New York have launched similar campaigns — spending $700,000 in marketing to urge its residents to drink from the tap.
Proponents of bottled water say it's not an either/or situation.
"Drinking more water is a good thing," said Stevens. "Bottled water is not a competitor to tap water."
And some mayors say it's not practical to rely solely on the municipal water supply.
"I'm a big believer in bottled water," said Don Robart, mayor of Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, who did not support the resolution against bottled water at the mayors' meeting in June. "From a health standpoint alone, I think we should be encouraging it."
Robart says it's a "bunch of baloney" that bottled water erodes support for tap water. He also notes how important it is to have bottled water on hand in case of emergency.
Lauria noted that bottled water is indispensable when there's an emergency, such as after Hurricane Katrina and the more recent flooding in Iowa. He said the water industry is very generous in times of need. He said he found it ironic that the mayor of Des Moines, whose city was hard hit by the recent flooding, was among those who supported the mayors' resolution.
He also pointed out that while it's easy to find alternatives to bottles when you are at your desk, not all city workers have that luxury. He said Miami police officers were drinking bottled water while on patrol during the mayors' meeting.
"We would lose access to one of the best resources we have," he said. "There is room for both types of water."