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Bottled Insanity

It’s got to be one of life’s cheapest escapes: a mini buck fifty sojourn to the rainforests of Fiji, all from the convenience of your own cubicle. America is mad for Fiji water—an emerging victor in the designer water wars.

According to the Los Angeles-based Fiji Water Company, their bottled-in-Fiji artesian water is “untouched by man” (which I would hope is pretty standard for drinking water) and, due to a high-tech bottling plant, has never come in contact with 21st-century air. The hype positions it as the fossil fuel of waters—one more heirloom fluid to be ravenously plundered.

On one level it’s refreshing to see people excited about water. For the most part, each bottle of water Americans drink represents one less sugar-and chemical-laden bottle of soda pop consumed. With sugary soft drinks (liquid candy averaging 11 teaspoons of sugar per 12-ounce bottle) emerging as a major culprit in our obesity epidemic, our newfound taste for water is certainly good news.

But there’s a dark side to our new water craze. And in many ways, Fiji Water optimizes the self-destructive insanity of consumer culture. The problem is not Fiji Water per se. The company has built hospitals and water systems in Fiji, and I’m sure their water is great. The problem is bottled water in general, and Fiji Water makes a great case study.

I’m in Western New York State watching people drink Fiji Water out of little, indestructible plastic tanks adorned with colorful images of tropical flowers and waterfalls. But there’s something very wrong here. Something very unnatural about this natural treat. Something that threatens the very existence of the tropical paradise depicted on the bottle. Something that lays bare the insanity of consumerism.

Here we are sitting on the edge of the Great Lakes—home to one fifth of the fresh water on the planet. We’re hours away from pristine Adirondack mountain aquifers. Yet we buy water that is transported to northeastern North America from a small South Pacific atoll whose population suffers from chronic water shortages. This water is packaged in plastic bottles made from dwindling oil reserves. Currently it takes about 63 million gallons of oil per year to manufacture disposable water bottles for US consumption.

Fiji Water bottles are made on-site in Fiji from polyethylene terephthalate (PET). The manufacturing process is energy-intensive and produces toxic byproducts. The plant that makes the bottles is one part of Fiji you’ll never see pictured on a Fiji Water bottle. When we’re done drinking our water, over 85 percent of these bottles wind up in landfills (where they take up to 1,000 years to degrade) and incinerators—the latter of which can release a potpourri of deadly toxics into the environment. Recycling plastic bottles is still often cost-prohibitive.

Bringing these bottles of water here from the other side of the earth involves packing them into cardboard boxes. In the South Pacific this often means rainforest cardboard. The boxes of bottles are then trucked from the bottling plant to a sea cargo terminal in Fiji, then shipped across the ocean on fossil-fuel-powered freighters to the US Pacific coast. There they’re loaded onto trains and trucks, all powered by fossil fuels, and eventually warehoused, prodded with forklifts, loaded onto other trucks, shipped to other warehouses and eventually delivered to your local convenience store or drink machine. Environmental impact-wise, you might as well be swigging down a pint of oil.

We’re being sold a fantasy. A moment in Fiji. A taste of Fiji. And I’m sure someone out there will tell me there’s no other water like it, or Perrier, or Poland Springs, on the planet. But the insane reality is we’re shipping water across an ocean and continent, to a region that already has the world’s most abundant reserves of some of the best water on the planet—water that is also shipped around the world to other water snobs who will argue it’s all worthwhile since there’s no other water quite like New York’s Adirondack spring water. This behavior is killing the planet. And the places our designer water comes from, such as Fiji and the mountains of New York and Maine, are among the most vulnerable environments susceptible to the ravages of global warming.

Years ago I clipped a small newspaper story and stuck it to the wall of my office. It was a three-column-inch report of a northbound train hauling municipal waste crashing into a southbound train hauling, yes, municipal waste. The story was just a simple narrative. One train was on the wrong tack. A mistake was made. Never addressed was the obvious question: Why are we moving identical trains of garbage in opposite directions for a zero sum gain?

I guess this is the magic of the free market. Trains full of garbage or water passing in the night. The problem is that this madness is no longer sustainable. It never was. The Fiji Water Company suggests that we drink 16 glasses a day of water—all from Fiji. That’s three to 11 bottles depending on size. From a planetary perspective, this is suicidal.

If you like water, and you don’t like tap water, then buy a water filter and refill your colorful Fiji bottles over and over. You can still imagine you’re in Fiji. They’re your daydreams to do with as you wish. Perhaps you can even dream of a healthy world.

Michael I. Niman’s previous columns are archived at www.mediastudy.com and available at www.artvoice.com.