Singing the “Bottled Water Blues”


photo/Steve Cartwright
photo/Steve Cartwright

Singing the “Bottled Water Blues”
An op-ed by Steve Cartwright

When I was a kid, a few people bought Poland Spring water in glass bottles, probably to show off their refined, expensive taste. I just drank from a glass, filled at the kitchen sink. I mean, it’s water.

But now everybody seems to be clutching a plastic Poland Spring bottle, drinking the expensive contents. It’s just plain water, but it sells like it’s the elixir of youth.

Just about anywhere you go you see the familiar green label. But there is nothing “green” about this national addiction to buying plain old water in plastic containers. In an example of “greenwash,” Poland Spring now claims to have an “eco-shaped” bottle that uses an average of 30 percent less plastic than “comparable size, leading brands.” This begs the basic question: Why buy water in plastic bottles in the first place?

Consider these facts: Americans throw billions of plastic bottles into the waste stream each year, just so they can have a drink of “pure spring” water. Do you imagine beautiful maidens are dipping this water from a pristine spring in the wilderness?

Don’t kid yourself. This water is systematically and relentlessly pumped from land that belongs to Maine communities. Poland Spring, which began bottling water generations ago in the town of that name, is now an arm of the global conglomerate Nestlé. Poland Spring is trying to strong-arm Maine so Nestlé can continue to extract our water, for free, and sell it back to us.

Poland Spring water dates at least as far back as the mid-19th century, when Hiram Ricker built the Poland Spring House with its opulent ballrooms, elevator, golf course, and water he claimed could heal the sick. It made Ricker a very rich man.

Nowadays, Nestlé grows rich on gullible customers who seem to think drinking Poland Spring water is a good thing — even without old Hiram telling them it cures dyspepsia. It’s not a good thing. It’s a disgraceful thing to do. Think what those dollars you spend on water could do for your family, for your community, for charity.

Think what extracting millions of gallons of water from Maine might do to our water table, to small farmers, to wildlife and our kitchen faucets. What gives Poland Spring the right to take this from us, without even being taxed? The company says it “provides” jobs. Nonsense. It hires people like any other business if it needs them. This isn’t charitable or being socially responsible.

Nestlé, you might remember, is the company that last year was forced to recall contaminated infant formula it was selling in South Africa. A company spokesman said babies probably wouldn’t consume it because it smelled bad. How reassuring. Also in 2008, Nestlé was involved in a scandal over tainted powdered milk in China.

Yet Nestlé claims it is environmentally friendly, a “fair trade” company.

Even if Nestlé markets “safe” formula, the practice raises a serious ethical question: Why is the company promoting formula in poor nations where babies should be breast-fed? Mother’s milk is the healthiest, cheapest and most nurturing way to nourish a newborn. Nestlé is among the most protested and boycotted companies on the planet.

I’ve never gone thirsty for long in this country. We have water everywhere, and nearly all of it is completely safe to drink. If I need water for a hike, a bike ride or a contradance, my solution is to carry a glass jar or stainless-steel water bottle — it should outlast me — and then refill it when I get the chance.

Americans annually drink about 22 gallons of bottled water per person. I guess that doesn’t include me, but why am I an exception? Even people who should be environmentally aware seem to think it’s OK to buy cases of bottled water. I’ve attended an annual conservation fair where youngsters from area schools are routinely given Poland Spring water in plastic bottles even though water is readily available. The kids could use paper cups and save the organizers a lot of money. Or maybe our students should put their name on a tin cup and re-use it, over and over.

Studies indicate that up to 90 percent of plastic water bottles are not recycled. Manufacturing them uses more than a million barrels of oil every year, not counting fuel for transportation. And even when the empties are “recycled,” imagine the cost in pollution and use of petroleum to truck them to a plant, reprocess them, and deliver them somewhere else. For that matter, imagine the fuel costs of trucking Poland Spring water all over the nation, when we know there is safe drinking water in every community of the United States.

Why are we paying for water that in most cases is no different from that running from the tap? Bottled water can, in some cases, be less tasty and healthy than the water you can drink for free. It’s certainly less healthy when you consider the environmental impact of trucking bottled water for hundreds of miles, and then burning the empty plastic bottle in a regional waste incinerator.

Florida’s Republican Governor, Charlie Crist, is proposing a six-cent tax on each gallon of Nestlé-extracted water from that state, a move that could generate $56 million, for starters.

So listen up, Governor John Baldacci and Maine legislators: By simply imposing a tax on Poland Spring (Nestlé) of, let’s say, 10 cents per gallon, we could raise tens of millions of dollars for Maine. Alternatively, if we applied a tax of $1 per gallon — not outrageous when you consider Poland Spring sells for $1 per 20 ounce bottle — we could pull ourselves out of debt and adequately fund our schools so they can teach our children that water belongs to all of us, it’s essential to our health, and buying it in a plastic bottle costs us a lot — in cash and in damage to our fragile, imperiled environment.

The Maine Legislature is expected to consider several bills dealing with water extraction, all related to Poland Spring operations.

Democratic Rep. Jon Hinck of Portland has introduced a penny-a-gallon tax proposal that would cost Poland Spring $7 million a year. Even that minimal tax raised the ire of a Poland Spring spokesman, who said, “This reduces our ability to compete in a very competitive market.” Uh-huh. Hinck, a lawyer, suggested Poland Spring could probably handle the increased cost. He said it figures out to one-twelfth of a cent per bottle.

Meanwhile, the nice guys at Poland Spring have sued the town of Fryeburg in the Maine Supreme Court, claiming the local planning board has no right to block its planned pumping station. Fryeburg officials have repeatedly ruled against Poland Spring, but it won’t take no for an answer. It refuses to respect the community’s decision.

Poland Spring currently extracts water in the towns of Poland Spring, Poland, Kingfield, and Fryeburg, plus Pierce Pond Township and Dallas Plantation. But in Shapleigh, citizens recently voted by a two-to-one margin to ban any corporation from extracting water from the community. Town officials have questioned the legality of the ban; supporters point out that it hasn’t been tested in court. Nestlé hasn’t yet indicated whether it intends to sue.

Water doesn’t need to be dressed up in a bottle with cap and label. It looks just fine in the nude.

But naked or bottled, many Mainers need to realize their groundwater belongs to them, not to Nestlé. And we all should realize we don’t need to buy bottled water in the first place.


Steve Cartwright enjoys a tall glass of sweet well water at his home in Waldoboro.