By Michael D. Sorkin
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Following pressure from activists, Pepsico disclosed last week that its Aquafina bottled water comes from the same source as tap water.
Here, Aquafina has expanded its operations at the site of a former General Motors auto plant in north St. Louis. Aquafina says it buys water here from the city's water treatment plant.
So the water in a 20-ounce bottle of Aquafina that sells for $1.25 comes from the Missouri River.
St. Louis officials calculate that residents can buy about 10 gallons of city water for 1.5 cents.
Consumers spent $15 billion last year on bottled water, according to Beverage Digest. By one estimate, that's more than 27 gallons per American.
Will Aquafina's disclosure about its source hurt bottled-water sales?
Barbara Roche hopes so, at least in her little corner of the world.
Sister Barbara is president of Nerinx Hall, a girls Catholic high school in Webster Groves. By the time school opens later this month, the cafeteria's two water bottle machines will be gone and the school will have handed each of its 620 students her own plastic water bottle.
"We are working toward our students not purchasing bottled water," Sister Barbara says. "We want to encourage them to go to the water fountain and fill their bottle with cold water."
The school is educating students about what goes into producing each bottle — the energy, the cost of transportation and the plastic. And Sister Barbara hopes the students will become better consumers.
"I want them to think about how much it is costing to pay for what they could get for free," she says.
Pepsico isn't happy with such talk.
"Aquafina is not tap water," says spokesman Dave DeCecco.
He complained that the company "got crushed" in news stories last week about Aquafina's disclosure. A late-night comedian compared the bottled stuff to water from a garden hose.
"People thought we were opening up water faucets and putting it in Aquafina," DeCecco says. "That's just not the case."
Aquafina labels say all bottled water is not the same. The company points to its "HydRO-7" purification process that removes substances in tap water that can affect the taste.
Its label describes Aquafina as "Pure water — perfect taste / purified drinking water."
Pepsico said last week it will change its labels. "We said that we would say that the water originated from public water sources," DeCecco says.
But he says the company hasn't decided what the new wording will say — or when consumers would see it.
Some smaller brands of water, such as Perrier, do come from springs.
But Pepsico's Aquafina and Coke's Dasani dominate the industry. Their plants get water from whatever the local water source is, says John Sicher, editor of Beverage Digest.
Most bottled water buyers don't know that, says Gigi Kellett of Corporate Accountability International. For two years, the group's Think Outside the Bottle campaign pressured Aquafina to disclose the sources of its water.
The group sponsored blind taste tests, asking consumers to compare bottled and tap water — and it gleefully says that few could tell the difference.
Bottled water companies use a so-called reverse osmosis process to strip out impurities, so the water is as pure as water can be.
The point is, it's water, says Daniel Giammar.
He's an assistant professor of civil engineering at Washington University and an expert in aquatic chemistry. He has long argued that those who buy bottled water may be wasting their money. Any difference with tap is negligible, he says.
He doesn't criticize bottled water, which he describes as safe.
But so, he adds, is tap water: "It's very safe."
Maybe the students at Nerinx Hall will provide a clue as to how consumers will react to the Bottled Water Controversy.
"We'll see when they find out that the bottled-water machines are gone," Sister Barbara says.
I paid $2 outside Mike Shannons for a bottle of river water? I could have just filled up an old beer bottle in Kiener Plaza for free. I'll try that this weekend.