Luxury of choice: which water, which container, why?

August 31, 2007 at 2:48 am | Posted in Cultural differences, Environment, Fashion, Fish sculpture, Fountain, Health, Jardin du Luxembourg, Lifestyle, Luco, Luxury, Marketing, My photos, Paris, Style, Taste, Water | 4 Comments

Jardin du Luxembourg Paris fish sculpture and fountain August 2003

Having noticed SIGG bottles in Whole Foods Market last week, for the first time, and reading Darmok’s excellent post on drinking water afterwards, I was prompted to look SIGG up online. As usual, Swiss engineering is impressive and thorough, and their marketing is appropriately stylish, allowing a huge amount of personalisation: they even had a SIGG design contest this year, which appeals to artistic teenagers!

Now I find that my daughter’s new school requires a 1 litre water bottle for sports. It is on the official school supply list, and is not optional. Never before has one of my kids attended a school where her own water bottle—clearly and indelibly market with her name, of course—is stipulated. She has an aluminium bottle for the first time, having always taken plastic containers to school before. We shall see how dented it gets … 😉

Before I read the school list, I think I was subliminally aware enough of rising concerns over the climate unfriendliness of plastic water bottles to browse the water bottle section in WFM. Certainly, when we moved to the US in the early ‘nineties, I started to become more distrusting of the water everywhere. How could that be? I put this down to a couple of differences, notable on arrival and when immersed in healthcare issues in California, after transferring there from Britain and having three kids (which is the crucial bit, as I am not swayed by the fashion angle I present below, but it is the bombardment of health concerns in California that really make an impression).

In California, employees gather around water coolers. In Britain, employees in small companies are more likely to gather around the kettle and sink! The importance of this difference? Boiling your own water (in a kettle, not warming it in the microwave as is often the case in America) to make tea or instant coffee (which we are more likely to make from kettle-boiled water in Britain rather than brew in a coffee machine using water at a temperature just below its boiling point), changes not just the temperature, but also the taste of the water and sterilises it somewhat at the same time. Wash your own mug in the sink or overnight in the company dishwasher, and there is no container to dispose of! So the health and environmental concerns of the water consumed are much less for the tea party than the bottled water crowd 😉

In California, I noticed some women colleagues carrying personal water bottles year-round. I guessed this was for several reasons:

  • it is hot much of the time outside and they were concerned about dehydrating, which of course makes you more wrinkled (though I must admit, most colleagues were working in chilly air-conditioned offices, so the cooling regimen requires a Disneyesque st-r–e–t-ch of the imagination, and even the hydration argument tended to result in more frequent bathroom breaks … ), and
  • it gave them kudos for taking responsibility for their own health, which is a good thing, though again, hardly a top British concern—we talk more about the weather than how many glasses of water we have drunk so far today, and we don’t exactly keep a strict tally of how many cups of tea we have consumed to date.

I concluded drinking water the California way had to be, in large part, a fashion statement. To add to the evidence supporting this hunch, the women in marketing were the most likely to flaunt their designer bottles and compare notes in the hallways and during meetings on how many 8-ounce-glass-equivalents they had drunk in the office each day, just as they would count calories. Meanwhile we engineers (male and female) carried on regardless, drinking and eating whatever, whenever.

In Britain, I mused, we would look silly carrying teapots around …

Parenting magazines in America were forever printing articles and readers’ letters discussing water quality. (Has that changed?) I subscribed to a British parenting magazine for years, to compare topics, and there was much less fuss about water quality during the same period.

Still, the endless uncertainties about our water supply in America, and the fact that we lived in an earthquake zone, made me stock up on bottled water for three-day emergency purposes to begin with, and then it was so easy to get sparkling water delivered with irresistible fizz that I signed up for that, and we would add it to fruit juice instead of buying soda aka pop! 😉

On that note, recently, I discovered that SodaClubUSA is the equivalent of SodaStream in the UK. If only I had known that sooner! The SodaClub marketing seemed only to be an alternative to soda, which I have always avoided buying. SodaClub’s environmental and health-conscious marketing is missing out on selling fizzy water to these lifestyle groups if SodaClub products are only featured in the soda aisles. Ooops! (They could do with a name change to SparklingClub too.)

A few years ago, we moved to a house where the water tasted disgusting, so we added under sink filters: much better taste, and the water feeds the ice-maker too. (Another transatlantic cultural difference there).

By contrast, the tap water in South Wales is refreshing and always tastes delicious. When I was a child, we lived in an old Victorian house with lead pipes (and lead paint) so the water was run for a couple of minutes in the morning, ostensibly to get rid of any lead that had contaminated our tasty Welsh water supply overnight. That was our solution!

Now, we live in our old Georgian house with lead pipes (like most of the older housing stock in Britain). Our water is so hard and tastes so unpleasant I do not enjoy drinking it from the tap, preferring to filter it with Brita.

Our Miele dishwasher recommends finish powerballs, which are sold in the UK and are able to cope with our hardness of water. On the box are these references:

Save Energy and Water

Sustainable Cleaning

Waterwise

… and this colourful map from Waterwise, which I can assure you, highlights the variety in waters around the country, and anyone who says “tap water tastes great!” should be aware that it isn’t always so, everywhere, especially for sensitive types who really can taste chlorine, rust, plastic, “chemicals” and so on:

Water hardness in the UK from Waterwise DOT org

Bottom line for me is that we have the luxury of choice today. Sometimes it seems we have so much information, that the easiest way to go is to follow fashion than to research all the issues ourselves. The thing about fashion is that it is driven by consumption. Maybe governments and local water companies could learn something from the bottled water suppliers, by advertising the consumption of tap water as a lifestyle and climate-beneficial choice?!

—————————————————————————-

Following is a comment I wrote on ScienceBlogs and am pasting here as a reminder to myself to look into the soda versus water bottle ratios one day … when I have more time!

I agree with Ellen that the real (or an even bigger slice of the) problem is soda. Bottled water competes in that larger bottled drink market so is a healthy alternative, by comparison.

I wonder how many of the plastic bottles that are thrown away actually held soda, rather than water? I have not seen the numbers compared anywhere. All the arguments about transporting water around on trucks apply equally well to soda, and at least water is not responsible for childhood levels of obesity on the rise in America and Britain.

We buy bottled water only if it’s sparkling—to get the fizz! Our three kids are only allowed sodas on high days and holidays. Instead we drink water from a Brita filter system that we have used for years, and add juice for flavour. In our area of Britain, Brita filters are a godsend because the water here is so hard the kettle furs up and tea gets that film on top that makes people from soft-water areas think it looks disgusting! Tea made with unfiltered water is not unhealthy, but it is certainly not visually appealing. Also, the energy efficiency of a kettle is reduced by limescale build-up on the element, so Brita helps in that regard too 🙂

Once I splash out on a carbonator that would add the fizz to our water at home, we’d be well away—no more bottled water. SodaStream seems to be the answer.

In the US, what amazes me, even in California, is that few food & drink places, hotels, and airports, provide recycling facilities. All provide trash cans. I cannot bear to throw a plastic bottle away, so end up taking empty bottles home with me to recycle there whenever possible. This seems ridiculous in this day and age 😐

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4 Comments »

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  1. Interesting – and I’ve often noticed the differences in tap water when visiting friends (or living, for a while) on t’other side of town, which straddles one of the yellow-green divides on that map. Having grown up mostly on the yellow side, ‘green’ water never tasted quite right, even in coffee etc. (though the difference has seemed less marked in the past decade or so). Thankfully, the water on both sides of our particular divide has always been quite soft, so we’ve been spared the limescale problems.

  2. Darmok’s post deals very well with with health and perception aspects of this. My post simply adds a few thoughts on geographical, historical, cultural, and fashion implications from my own experience to show that there is more to perception than meets the eye/tastebuds 😉
    .
    P.S. You might also enjoy reading Darmok’s post of commendation for Brian May. Yes, I still get visitors to my post in which the video of Brian May playing ‘God Save the Queen’ on the rooftop of Buckingham Palace is embedded. The reason I get these searchers is that people get Windsor Castle and Buck House mixed up! (All I can say is, I am glad H.M Queen Elizabeth II appreciates the difference!)

  3. The area I grew up in had the most disgusting tap water, and when I showered I could smell the chlorine. I’ve since developed a fondness for my Brita filter, even though it means I have to fill the jug twice a day to keep up with my drinking habits.

    I have a stainless steel water bottle from Kleen Kanteen. It has one large dent, and makes a fantastic “clang” when I drop it 🙂

  4. Thanks, inel, for a wonderful post drawing attention to the problems with bottled water. I really like those SIGG bottles—I think the next water bottle I buy will have to be one of theirs! Not sure yet about which style or size I want…


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