Not all water tastes the same. Or does it?
That was the question a group of community organizers were posing to pedestrians on Massachusetts Street on Wednesday afternoon. Their intended effect was to convince people that water from a bottle doesn’t taste that much different from what comes out of the faucet in homes across Lawrence.
“Forty-four percent of bottled-water sources come from tap water,” said Meredith Walrafen, a Kansas University senior who was pouring water samples of the city’s tap water, Dasani and Nestle’s Pure Life into plastic cups for passersby to sample.
“We’ve had one person who took it and got the tap water right away,” Walrafen said. “But for most of the other people who have taken the taste challenge, they didn’t notice a difference. A lot of times it is a guess.”
The taste-test challenge in Lawrence was one of dozens held across the country Wednesday as part of Corporate Accountability International’s Think Outside the Bottle campaign. Walrafen, who interned for the organization this summer and worked on similar challenges in Boston, has a long list of reasons why tap water should be chosen over bottled water.
Bottled water is bad for the environment, more expensive and, Walrafen said, companies such as Nestle’s Pure Life brand target poor, Latino immigrants who come from countries where the public water supply isn’t always clean. But that’s not the case in the United States, where tap water is more heavily regulated than bottled water.
The Think Outside the Bottle campaign focuses on water as a fundamental human right.
“Everyone needs water to survive. It’s not something that should be bought and sold for profit,” Walrafen said. Corporate Accountability International isn’t the only consumer organization concerned with bottled water and the messages it sends to customers.
In 2009, the General Accounting Office found that regulations of bottled water, which is under the Food and Drug Administration, is less strict than tap water, which is under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Mainly, municipal water sources are required to test their water for contaminants and report their findings annually to customers. Bottled water companies don’t have to report results of any water quality testing to the FDA, even if the levels exceed federal standards.
Consumer Reports recommended that the bottled water industry set standards as strict as the EPA’s regulation of tap water, require bottled water companies provide the same information as public drinking sources and set a standard for the levels of plastic chemicals that could be found in the water.
This year, the Environmental Working Group released a report that analyzed the labels and websites from 173 brands of bottled water. Of those brands, 18 percent didn’t list where the water came from, and 32 percent didn’t report how the water was treated. Many of those brands were among the biggest in the business.
Both Consumer Reports and the Environmental Working Group recommended drinking tap water and for those concerned about water purity to use a water filter.
Back on Mass. Street, pedestrians were sipping water to see if they could taste the difference between tap and bottled water.
While some (including this writer), guessed wrong, others could distinctly tell which was which. For Sean Williams that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing for tap water. In his opinion, the bottled water tastes like plastic.
“I don’t drink bottled water,” Williams said. “I grew up in Kansas City where the tap water is awesome.”
Along with convincing Lawrence residents that what comes out of the faucet is just as good as what comes out of the bottle, and a whole lot cheaper, Walrafen said she wants to launch initiatives for state and local governments to stop buying bottled water and to start drinking tap water.