The Conundrum of Bottled Water

A few years ago I worked with a client who was in the water filtration business, making products like filtering pitchers. Strangely enough their main competition was no longer other manufacturers of filtration pitchers, but bottled water. This was at the relatively early part of the hockey-stick curve of growth for bottled water, and I’m sure if I talked to them today they would be in an even worse situation. The bottled water business has just exploded, to the point where it is now half the size of the carbonated drinks business, according to a new article in Fast Company:

A chilled plastic bottle of water in the convenience-store cooler is the perfect symbol of this moment in American commerce and culture. It acknowledges our demand for instant gratification, our vanity, our token concern for health. Its packaging and transport depend entirely on cheap fossil fuel. Yes, it’s just a bottle of water—modest compared with the indulgence of driving a Hummer. But when a whole industry grows up around supplying us with something we don’t need—when a whole industry is built on the packaging and the presentation—it’s worth asking how that happened, and what the impact is. And if you do ask, if you trace both the water and the business back to where they came from, you find a story more complicated, more bemusing, and ultimately more sobering than the bottles we tote everywhere suggest.

The article does an outstanding job of tapping into the various cultural, global commerce, and ecological forces that bottled water represents. Highly recommended reading.

(On a related note: As part of our recent green-themed Design Mind newsletter at frog design, we included the statistics-based photography of artist Chris Jordan, the first images of which in the slide show are on the subject of plastic bottles - 2 million thrown away every 5 minutes.)