Monday, October 5, 2015

Right Water, Wrong Writer – A Story of Junk Journalism

I’m going to be upfront with you – this is a long blog post, but I hope you’ll read to the end. As a writer who has covered the water industry for over a decade I am in favor of both municipal water (tap), filtered water, and bottled water - I drink them all. They have their pros and cons, which I detail in my book “Our World of Water,” and it’s important to know those differences. I have visited water treatment plants, and bottled water plants in the U.S., China, and France and know the industry quite well.

Roberto Ferdman, a writer with the Washington Post, penned an article “Our Other Drinking Problem” (August 28th) attacking the bottled water industry. His article came on the heels of a press release that suggested that within the next two years bottled water in the U.S. will be more popular than soda. I wrote an op/ed to the Washington Post but, no surprise, they would not run it. To me, a water advocate, people drinking more water is terrific news. I would much rather have people drink water, which provides immense benefits, rather than soda which not only offers nothing nutritional, but actually leeches nutrients from the body. But people are free to make their own choice. However Mr. Ferdman ignores this and goes on the offensive to attack bottled water. Sadly his Washington Post article is not only is flawed but also demonstrates a clear bias, and a lack of understanding about our shared water systems. It’s not my concern if people dislike bottled water; that’s fine, just like not everyone likes milk. If you don’t like it, then don’t buy it – make your voice heard via your wallet. But at the very least get your facts straight.

I Tweeted to Mr. Ferdman to see if he has ever visited a bottled water plant, maybe a water treatment plant, wastewater plant or even a desalination plant (as this might give him insight as to the processing of water), but he did not respond (though he had responded to me via Twitter earlier). To start with Mr. Ferdmen sites Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute as a source for his article, a staunch opponent of anything bottled water, yet he does not represent any opposing view so the reader is left with a one-sided presentation. As a journalist it’s your job to present two sides of a story, well, unless you have an inherent bias. At least state in your article that you detest the bottled water industry, that would be more honest.

The article states: “The average person in the United States now consumes more than 35 gallons of bottled water per year. That's about 270 bottles, and more than twice as many as people drank 15 years ago.” However his math is disingenuous because he insinuates that most of those bottles you and I drink are tossed in the garbage. “By Gleick's estimate, only about a third of all bottles of water consumed in the United States are recycled, meaning that about two-thirds end up in the garbage,” he writes, then adds this quote from Gleick: "The bottled water industry says correctly, but misleadingly, that the plastic the water comes in is recyclable. It's misleading, because recyclable is not the same thing as recycled." There is nothing misleading about the fact that, yes every bottle is recyclable. Ferdman also ignores the exciting new bottles made from non-plastic that have the potential to biodegrade (some of these are on the market but degradation rates are still long). However Ferdman and Gleick would have you believe that all these bottles tossed in the garbage are the fault of the bottled water association. They do not take into account that America’s plastic recycling rates are at 40% - still poor compared to the rest of industrialized nations – and that weak recycling rates in America are due to lack of education and a culture of wastefulness. Suggesting the bottled water industry is culpable for bottles tossed in the garbage is akin to an obsolete car sitting in a junkyard being Ford’s fault for making the car in the first place. People drink water from various sizes of bottles, including refillable stainless steel, glass and other plastic canteens. To suggest that each American is wasting 180 (2/3rds of his erroneous 270 number) bottles sounds tragic, but the reality is that many people buy gallon jugs, even five-gallon jugs of water, and not everyone uses a 16.9 ounce bottle, the number Mr. Ferdman told me he used for his calculation. And of course Peter Gleick would estimate 180, he dislikes the industry with a passion and it’s in his best interest to skew the numbers. But the other lunacy of this argument is that it rarely, almost never, takes into account any other beverage sold in recyclable containers that are “tossed in the garbage”: soda, energy drinks, fruit juices, tea, coffee, beer, those tiny liquor bottles, milk, etc.

Mr. Ferdman writes: “Bottled water has also been marketed down Americans' throats.” Hum. I’m guessing he doesn’t watch TV, have a computer, or ever read a newspaper or magazine. Every company markets their product and bottled water is no different. Ever notice the aggressive ads of beer (which some also consider sexist), cola ads, and energy drinks? Hell, even the Got Milk campaign lasted 20 years. To suggest it’s being forced on anyone truly shows the bias Mr. Ferdman has for the bottled water industry. The article goes on to use a stunningly outdated piece of data: “As of 2006, it took 3 liters of water to produce 1 liter of bottled water, according to The Pacific Institute.” Once again Ferdman sites only Gleick and the Pacific Institute. That aside, how the Washington Post could allow a nine-year old figure to be used shows a serious lack of editorial oversight. According to the European Federation of Bottled Waters, their 2013 study showed that the average water use for bottled water is measured at 1.63 liters per liter of finished water. Do they have a bias too? Probably. But 1.63 is very different than 3. And yes, manufacturing of most any product uses water, including the wine and beer industries, beef, soy, corn, cotton, the computer or handheld device you’re reading this on right now. It becomes a ridiculous argument after a while.

But lastly (and thanks for sticking with this if you’ve read this far) many people choose bottled water and home water filtration systems due to specific safety concerns. I have steadfastly said that water treatment plants are the unsung heroes of the water world providing us with some of the best, cleanest water in the world. I’ve stated this in my book, on the radio, when I lecture, in articles and blog posts. But this does not mean the American water system is perfect. Water systems can be affected by contamination from bacteria, arsenic, uranium, and a host of other things. Water main breaks - nearly 700 daily in America according to the American Society of Civil Engineers - willful industry dumping of toxins into public water supplies, all contribute to potential problems. The recent spills in 2015 alone (Santa Barbara, Yellowstone, Animas River in Colorado) should tell you that water is loosely regulated and mistakes will occur. The current blowback from multiple states against the Environmental Protection Agency in their attempts to put teeth back into the Clean Water Act to protect our streams, tributaries and wetlands, should remind you that clean water is still considered inconsequential. And let’s not forget that many Americans object to the chemicals from fracking, or fluoride in their water. And the list goes on.

Weirdly to me, so many bottled water companies give back to help protect wetlands, provide new wells in poorer countries and otherwise support water charity in some way. Honestly, they do a crappy job of telling the public. Is it green washing? Sure, you could make that argument but regardless Coke and Nestle, as just two examples, give hard cash and have programs in place to support water charities. And let’s not go down the road of bottled water available and donated worldwide when a disaster strikes. I’ll bet Mr. Ferdman would happily guzzle (then hopefully recycle) a bottle of water then!

As I’ve written, if you don’t like bottled water then don’t buy it. I don’t drink soda and I don’t buy it, but I’m also not on a crusade to distort information and deceive people to get them to stop drinking it. Mr. Ferdman’s position with the Washington Post allows him a large stage, but if the message is dubious, so is the messenger?

1 comment: