Bottled vs. Tap: Water sales soar in U.S.

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — Bottled water now tops pop as the number one beverage sold in the U.S., according to data from the Beverage Marketing Association.

The $16 billion dollar industry shows few signs of backing off. News 4 checked state records and found dozens of companies are authorized to sell bottled water products in New York State.

Understanding the production process

One of the biggest bottlers in our region is Mayer Brothers in West Seneca. Owner Garrett Mayer invited us to see a production line that runs at a rate of 450 bottles per minute.

“We’re taking the empty bottles. We’re putting the sterilized water into the bottle and applying the cap,” Mayer explained, standing next to noisy equipment he’s acquired in the past 30 years.

The company slowly entered the water market in 1987 at a time when Perrier’ was the only one available. “We initially started in our cider plant doing gallon water. It was a real novelty that anyone drank water,” he recalled.

Today, Americans consume an average of 39 gallons of bottled water per person, per year, according to Beverage Marketing Association.

Mayer Brothes increased production as demand grew, even purchasing the equipment to make their own bottles. “We take a product that looks like a test tube with little threads on it, and we heat that product up to the test tube and stretch blow,” Mayer demonstrated.

The company’s spring water comes from three springs the company owns in the Concord, NY area. It takes about 40 minutes for truck crews (which operate around the clock) to drive the water to the West Seneca plant. “Then, we pump it into a silo,and then [use a] process with the water business, it’s called ozination,” he explained.

At the risk of getting too technical, ozination involves using ozone to sterilize the inside of the bottles. It yields a product that if tasted immediately after bottling might taste carbonated. “It’s three molecules of oxygen bonded together that breaks back down into water and oxygen in the bottle within 6 hours.”

Mayer Brothers now produces all of the brand-name water for Tops Markets. It’s a local partnership that’s proven successful because water can be bottled, packaged and delivered to stores in a matter of hours.

“You might remember, a couple of years ago we had a water crisis in Amherst. There was a water main break, so 200,000 in the Amherst community were without water,” Tops’ spokesperson Kathy Romanowski said. “Having this local partnership meant… this water could be delivered to our stores and be on the shelves – and re-stocked instantaneously for us.”

She confirms water is a top seller. “Bottled water goes right off our shelves,” Romanowski proclaimed!

“Most of the country has to drink what we call drinking water, but we’re in kind of a unique position because we have spring water coming out of the ground, so we have the ability to sell a premium product,” Mayer noted.

Look at the label on the bottle, and you should be able to find the New York certification number. You can search NYS Department of Health records to find the bottler and the source.

The Bottle battle

“People realized they didn’t like drinking water that had chlorine in it and all different kinds of things, and they liked the taste,” Mayer observed. His facility is a member of the International Bottled Water Association.

Joe Doss, IBWA president is upfront saying, “Bottled water is not just tap water in a bottle.”

That’s an argument industry leaders feel like they’re constantly addressing. Doss says sales of bottled water have risen every year over the past 40 years, with the exception of the recession in 2008 and 2009.

“It is a safe healthy quality product, and I think more and more consumers are health conscious nowadays and they’re trying to be careful about what they drink,” Doss explained to News 4 in Skype interview.

“The FDA comprehensively regulates all types of bottled water. In fact, FDA has what we call ‘standards of identity,’ so if a bottled water is going to call itself a spring water it must meet those those FDA requirements for spring waters,” Doss said.

The IBWA faces challenges from consumer groups such as Corporate Accountability International. Lauren DeRusha Florez, Associate Campaign Director for the campaign to challenge corporate control of water also spoke to News 4 via Skype.

“The bottled water industry has done a good job of undermining people’s faith in tap water, to make us have that question of whether we should or should not trust the tap water,” Florez said.

She calls bottled water an unncessary product. “Many of us can remember we went for decades and decades without bottled water, and this is an industry that invented itself out of thin air,” Florez suggested. She questions the cost of bottled water for families and the environmental footprint of the growing industry.

“The amount of plastic that is over-filling our landfills and over-flowing our oceans is incredible. At the same time, bottled water is not only damaging because of how much plastic it takes, but because of how much fresh water it takes to produce one,” Florez noted.

Doss and the IBWA dispute the environmental effects saying, “Bottled water has the lowest environmental impact of any packaged beverage. We use less water. We use 1.32 liters to make a liter of water, and that includes the liter you drink. We think people drinking water is a good thing: whether it’s tap water… whether it’s bottled water… or it’s filtered water.”

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