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Water and water bottles seem to be flowing into headlines as often as healthcare these days. But activists in the Northern California town of McCloud are claiming victory in a six-year battle to block Nestle Waters North America from erecting a water bottling plant at the site of an old mill in the once-prosperous logging town. Nestle announced on September 10 that it is bagging the proposal.
When first introduced, Nestle’s proposal was for a 1 million square foot facility that would bottle a mind-boggling 521 million gallons of water a year, pulling it from the town’s watershed and then trucking it as far south of Los Angeles. The plant would also employ 240 people, it said. Nestle later revised the scope down to 195 million gallons, and a plant with a smaller footprint (and a reduced workforce of 100), but the company had already raised the ire of McCloud residents—some of whom were pitted against each other on the issue—and had become a focus of the Think Outside the Bottle campaign of the watchdog group Corporate Accountability International. And while Nestle’s decision to pull out of McCloud is a victory for the local opposition group, for the local watershed and fisheries and for the area highways (which would have had to accommodate up to 300 truck trips a day for transporting the water) it’s not as if Nestle has decided to pull out of the business of selling (tap) water in bottles. It plans to open another bottling plant—albeit a much smaller one, cranking out of 50 million gallons of bottled water a year—in Sacramento instead.
Still, it does seem possible that activists are succeeding to sway public opinion when it comes to buying bottled water. Nestle and other sellers of bottled water are seeing demand for bottled water fall for the first time in what the Wall Street Journal calls “a decade of blockbuster growth.” Nestle Waters, Coca Cola and Pepsi have started lowering prices and reducing the amount of plastic in the bottles in hopes of enticing customers back. In mid-August, Nestle reported a three percent drop in its first-half profit, causing it to miss and trim back its sales forecasts. And bottled water was the poorest performing sector for the world’s biggest food and beverage company.
It will be interesting to see if Nestle and its competitors will be able to revive bottled water. Not all communities have pristine tap water—or even acceptable tap water, as this weekend’s New York Times reported—so demand for bottled water isn’t likely to dissolve completely. But perhaps efforts like Swobo’s Message in a Bottle and the Think Outside the Bottle campaign will continue to douse the market.