The Bottled Water Industry Has a Major Reputation Problem

The California drought shines an unflattering light on Nestle's bottled water business.

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Bottled water already has a pretty nasty reputation; landfills are overflowing with two million tons of discarded water bottles (which take 1000 years to biodegrade), and it takes approximately three liters of water to package a single liter. With statistics like these, it’s hard to imagine the product’s image could get much shadier — but it just did, and it’s threatening to take Nestle’s carefully-cultivated reputation down with it.

San Bernadino, CA and surrounding areas are currently experiencing a serious drought. Meanwhile, Nestle — the largest producer of bottled water in the US — continues to extract water from the San Bernardino National Forest in order to bottle and sell it.

Never mind the absurdity of people living in a drought-stricken region purchasing water taken from their own back yard; the story is making headlines because the federal government is investigating the permit Nestle has been using to access the water.

Why? Because it expired in 1988.

“Since this issue was raised and I became aware of how long that permit has been expired, I have made it a priority to work on this reissuance project,” said Jody Noiron, San Bernardino National Forest supervisor.

Renewal of this type of permit requires an environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act, which can take anywhere from 18 months to two years. However, given the severity of the drought, national forest officials are considering whether to impose “interim conditions” in the meantime.

And it’s not just the government trying to crack down on this practice.

One group, Courage Campaign, recently launched an online petition demanding that Nestle stop bottling water in California during the drought. So far, more than 135,000 people have signed.

Nestle Waters North America has responded to the petition, insisting that the 705 million gallons of water it extracts from the national park annually is roughly the amount of water needed to irrigate two golf courses and is, therefore, negligible.

“While responsible management is expected and essential, bottled water is such a small user that to focus on our industry as a material concern in water policy debates is misguided,” the company said.

But even if it’s true that the amount of water Nestle uses won’t have a dramatic effect on the drought, the story is throwing the environmental issues surrounding bottled water back into the spotlight.

The product is still a top seller in the US market. But with local governments in the US and Canada considering bans, and with a steady stream of damning statistics and stories like these, we wonder how long the bottled water industry can afford to wait before addressing these issues head on.