I’ve been running around with a factoid in my head, wondering if it’s true before I start repeating it. The factoid is that it takes a third of a bottle of petroleum to make and deliver a bottle of water.
I was told this about six months ago and hadn’t been able to check the facts until now. As far as I can tell, it is at most a small exaggeration. If you take manufacturing and delivery together, the number seems to be a quarter of a bottle according to Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute.
This is shocking, especially for a product that barely existed 10 years ago. Consumption of bottled water in the U.S. has increased fivefold in the last 10 years – from under 4 billion to more than 30 billion. Put another way, the average American has gone from having about a bottle of water once a month in 1997 to twice a week in 2007. That’s a seven-fold increase in a decade.
What’s crazy, of course, is that there’s a good substitute (tap water) out there, one with a huge infrastructure in place to distribute it right into our homes and places of work. This has all the makings of a habit we could all unlearn as quickly as we have learned, if the right message gets out.
Most of the vitriol that I’ve seen explaining why we shouldn’t drink bottled water centers on cost. It explains that bottled water can be 10,000 times more expensive than tap water to drink, and that bottled water costs more that gas (even at today’s high prices). I think these facts are interesting, but also “ho hum.” The mistake is that the anti-bottled water advocates are fighting a story with facts alone.
What’s missing from this approach is that a bottle of Evian (or Poland Spring, or Desani) is not the same thing as water from your tap. True, the quality of the water from a health perspective is essentially the same. But when you buy Evian, you’re buying the story of purity, the alps, clean mountain air, a story whose ultimate punchline is that at the most luxurious resorts, the poolboys come by and cool off the guests by spritzing them with spray bottles of…Evian. Add to that refrigeration, convenience, and habit and you understand why water and its offshoots are a big piece of Coca-Cola’s growth story these days (never mind that Dasani’s source is tap water).
So instead of dry facts that appeal to the head, why not fight a story with a story that hits people in the gut? How about taking something that’s on everyone’s mind these days – oil – and putting that at the center of the debate?
Making plastic bottles is oil-intensive: it took 17 million barrels of oil to make the 29 billion liters of bottled water Americans drank in 2006. That’s almost a full day’s worth of our nation’s annual oil consumption.
But I’m pretty sure even that idea won’t stick. So here’s my idea (and if anyone knows how I could get some donated billboard space near I-95 or Route 101 let me know):
Make a billboard with two bottles of water on a white background. The first bottle is filled with water, the second is one-quarter full of oil. Put an equals sign in between the bottles. Done.
(OK, it probably needs some snappy slogan like “Bring back the tap.” and a sentence saying, “This is how much oil it takes to bring you bottled water,” but I think all of that is incidental. The point is the powerful, simple, memorable image, one that’s worth talking about.)
If we want our advocacy to be as effective as the marketing that gets us to adopt bad habits, we have to be better at using marketers’ tools more effectively. Start with storytelling. I’m picking on bottled water but I’m sure you could come up with 10 other good examples. If you have some ideas, let me know.
Better yet, if you’re good with Photoshop, or know someone who is, ask them to make the image and send it to me, and I’ll use that to pitch the idea to Clear Channel Outdoor (who own all the billboards).
Notes for the skeptics:
1. According to the Earth Policy Institute, it takes 17 million barrels of oil to produce bottles for U.S. consumption. (Oddly, a recent NY Times article cited the Earth Policy Institute but quoted the number 1.5 million.)
2. If you are interested in this topic, check out the American Museum of Natural History water exhibit.
3. I was curious if I could get even close to Peter Gleick’s (of the Policy Institute) numbers using the information that’s being kicked around in the mainstream press. The bottom line is I could get to 10% as an oil:water ratio just for production of the bottles. I couldn’t get good information on transportation. Here’s the math for those who are interested:
a. 1 barrel of oil = 42 gallons = 158.987295 liters/barrel of oil
b. 17 million barrels of oil to produce water bottles = 2.7 billion liters of oil to produce 29 billion liters of water.
c. So just the production of the bottles means you could fill the bottle 10% with oil