Saturday, July 05, 2008

Burning Randomness

I have two "hometowns". One of them is dealing with a wild fire at the moment. As the governor has designated the blaze there a priority fire and thus sent to the area all available fire fighters and bombers, I thought I'd dedicate this blog entry to the fierce folks who gave up their holiday weekend to fight the good fight far from their own homes so that the folks in my hometown can be safe. I'm sure you'll be impressed with their skills as I am.

The burn map as of July 5th.

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Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Liquid Randomness, Just Add Water

From the land of that Arch-Environmentalist, Al Gore, comes the $480 bottle of water.

I kid you not -- the Washington Post reported that a company called "BlingH2O" in Tennessee is selling a special edition of its water, which normally sells for the already outrageous price of $40 per wine bottle size, for 12 times as much.

When you consider the price of water coming out of the tap, that exorbitant cost for this bottled water, which I remind you comes from Tennessee -- not Fiji, not the Alps, not some glacier in Antarctica -- seems both ridiculous and sad: ridiculous that someone would even consider paying that much for a bottle of "special edition" water; sad for the same reason.

Now, before you insist that bottled water is better than tap, and thus worth the extra cost, there are a few things to consider.

First is that, for all that people say that they can taste the difference between tap and bottled, blind tasted tests have demonstrated that people can't tell the difference between the two, for all the campaigning that bottled water has a better "mouth feel". An acquaintance of mine runs a tasting room at a winery down in Santa Ynez valley; he once told me that the easiest way to get rid of a poor selling wine is to not put it on sale, but to tell folks in glowing terms that the wine has a unique taste that can't be found in other wines. The various bottled water companies have figured this out: you can have a unique water with a taste that can't be found anywhere else. Which leads me to wonder if water actually has a taste.

Second, there is no government regulation of bottled water. There is, however, several strict regulations on what may come out of the tap in your home. What this means is that you can be sure that the quality of the water coming out of the tap is high enough. High enough, in fact, that bottled water companies such as Aquafina and Dasani are bottling local tap water and selling it for 1,000 times more than the cost of the original tap water. But, you say, the companies are putting the water through more purification and that makes the water better. All those companies are doing is purifying already rather pure enough water. That is, if they are purifying it. The Natural Resources Defense Council reported that while 25% of the bottled water available in this country is basically tap water, a good portion of the time it's not even given further purification.

Third, consider the cost of the bottle. Bottles are made of plastic. Plastic is made from a petrochemical. Petrochemicals are made from petroleum, commonly known as oil. Given that oil is currently selling at about $140 per barrel, and that the supply is rapidly decreasing, if you'd like the price of gas that goes into your car to go down, you need to cut down on the demand for other products which are generated out of petroleum. Worldwide, some 2.7 tons of plastic goes into making those bottles. "Making bottles to meet Americans' demand for bottled water requires more than 1.5 million barrels of oil annually, enough to fuel some 100,000 U.S. cars for a year," said the spokes person for the Earth Policy Institute.

Then there's the cost of transporting the bottle from there to here. Consider Fiji water: indeed that water is not tap water per se, but there is the environmental cost of producing the bottles and shipping them to "thirsty" Americans thousands of miles away. As of the first of the year, the company has gone "carbon-negative", which means that the company is purchasing environmental offsets. Good for them; still bad for the world -- most of those bottles will end up in landfills.

Fourth, with all the complaining about the cost of gas these days, you'd think people would question the cost of water. Figure an average cost of $2.50 per litre -- more if you're buying the "fancy" stuff -- and that runs roughly $10 per gallon. I don't think I need to write more on that subject.

Fifth, water is a human rights issue, but Americans will only defend the right to waste their money on what is nearly free to them. In many parts of the world, demand for that most basic of human rights -- the right to drinkable water -- is outpacing supply. Currently, over a billion people are living without access to safe water. It is believed that, if current trends continue, by 2025, two out of every three people on the planet will be forced to live on less than 14 gallons of water a day. That's the total for bathing, cooking, cleaning, and drinking. As a comparison, the average American uses 96 gallons a day. Yet, the Earth Policy Institute reports that some 41 billion gallons of water are sold annually in bottles. Of that number, American consumers account for 7 billion gallons, making it the world's biggest consumer of bottled water as it chugs downs 17% of the global market.

Granted, our culture's views on "healthy" water is not new. Back in the days before germs were understood, most northern Europeans viewed bathing as unhealthy. Most people drank wine or beer because water was a disease vector. Today, marketers are telling us that bottled water from glaciers and from some volcanic well on Hawaii are super pure because those waters have been "untouched" by humans. That doesn't make the waters better. If anything, I'd really be concerned about the glacier and iceberg waters -- while the ice may be untouched by humans, that's not to say that it was untouched by anything living. I really don't want to know if the Charmin bears took a pit stop on that glacier.

In Britain, some of the bottled "mineral" waters have so much mineral content added that they are unhealthy for babies and children. Lead's a mineral, right?

Mostly, I'm worried about how much intelligence Americans have. There's a company in Hawaii that is selling desalinated seawater as "concentrated water" for $33.50 per 2 ounce bottle. That makes the product worse than the $480 bottle of water in that not only is it more expensive, ounce for ounce, but in order to get the "full enjoyment" of the water, you must add water to the water.

I don't think it can get any sillier, but I equally sure that with the right marketing campaign, Americans can be made to buy anything.

We're not being sold the Brooklyn Bridge, we're buying the water under it.
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