Between campaigns to reduce plastic bottle waste, national news about water quality crises, and evidence that climate change will make water scarcity and water hazards more common, water is as prevalent in our discourses as it is necessary for our survival. But how do these dimensions of our water consumption intersect?
Unbottled: The Fight Against Plastic Water and for Water Justice by Daniel Jaffee
University of California Press, 384 pages
Publication date: September 19, 2023
Daniel Jaffee, an environmental and rural sociologist and professor at Portland State University, has written a book that seeks to answer this question, while raising a few more.
Unbottled: The Fight Against Plastic Water and for Water Justice delves into environmental degradation and clean water access, which are the most widely known issues surrounding bottled water. But the book goes further to explore bigger concerns: ownership of nature, what constitutes a commodity, and how to ensure human rights for all. Jaffee emphasizes the resistance against bottled water’s hegemony, not just its negative effects, leaving the reader astonished but still hopeful.
Jaffee spends the beginning of the book establishing the context for bottled water’s dominance in our culture: the history of the bottled water industry, how it has become a ubiquitous consumer commodity in the past four decades, and how this context manifests differently in the Global North and the Global South.
Jaffee writes about the privatization of water: “Since the 1980s, a constellation of actors, led by the World Bank and large private water service firms, have argued that governments in the Global South have failed to provide access to water to their growing and urbanizing populations and that only the private market can effectively expand water service.” Private companies provide the water, and governments turn water users into consumers.
He also debunks several deeply entrenched myths about bottled water, revealing that two-thirds of bottled water in the United States in 2017 was reprocessed or filtered tap water, that companies have no obligation to stop bottling or alert the public when they detect microplastics in their product from the packaging, and that recycling plastic water bottles is not an effective enough way to mitigate “a veritable tsunami of plastic waste.”
Alongside this industry’s rise has been a skyrocketing of public distrust of tap water. Although Jaffee presents evidence that much of this distrust and reliance on bottled water in the Global North is perceived (in fact, manufactured), of course there are cases in which the water flowing into people’s homes is contaminated and unsafe. Flint, Michigan, where people have been bathing in bottled water since 2014, is just one example of how neoliberal systems and austerity measures can lead to underfunding and vulnerability to water quality violations—especially against the historically disadvantaged, like rural, low-income, and predominantly Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities.
Around the world, this pattern has sparked anger about water extraction. The “big four” bottling companies—Nestlé, Danone Group, Coca-Cola (Dasani), and PepsiCo (Aquafina)—and other bottlers extract water from springs or groundwater sources, paying only the small cost of a permit. Then, they sell this water at a price unaffordable to many. Jaffee presents two cases, one in Cascade Locks, Oregon, and the other in southwestern Ontario, Canada, in which coalitions of Indigenous activists, advocacy groups, and grassroots organizers fought back against this exploitation and changed water policy for their communities.
“Bottled and packaged water intersects with, highlights, and exacerbates social and racial injustice.”—Dan Jaffee
Again and again, because so many of these examples lead down the same road, Jaffee establishes that—both within the United States and Canada as well as globally—“bottled and packaged water intersects with, highlights, and exacerbates social and racial injustice.” Anchoring the book in this kind of analysis is one of its greatest strengths, and one that comes from Jaffee’s background in both environmental studies and sociology.
Unbottled is truly full of information, pulling in research Jaffee did in the field between 2010 and 2021 in the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Brazil, as well as studies by other scholars and researchers on a range of related topics. For those wanting to fight for climate and water justice, this book is a must-read.
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