Bottled water awash in a sea of controversy

Bottled water is in hot water, and marketers of alternatives are trying to seize the opportunity.

Some of the same health-conscious consumers who helped make bottled water a $15 billion business now are among those worried about its environmental impact — its 38 million plastic bottles a year made with 1.5 million barrels of oil.

Questions also have been raised about the need for a relatively costly convenience product that in many cases is purified municipal tap water. Top-selling Aquafina recently was the latest brand to put that origin on its label, after prodding by consumer group Corporate Accountability. The PepsiCo PEP brand saw a sales dip from the negative publicity and has replaced scheduled ads for the next few weeks with one about its seven-step purification process.

"It's a tough time to be in bottled water," says Joseph Doss, CEO of the International Bottled Water Association. "We're facing a great deal of controversy."

Even some city governments are joining: Last month, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom banned city buying of bottled water for its facilities. Last week, a Chicago councilman proposed a 10- to 25-cent tax on bottled water to help pay for a $40 million water and sewer fund deficit — partly due to less tap water consumption.

Bottled water rivals are pumping up tap-based alternatives:

•Water filters. Brita, which makes pitchers with built-in filters, last week launched www.FilterForGood.com. It promotes using a Brita pitcher at home and offers a $10 refillable bottle by Nalgene for water on the go (with a portion of the proceeds going to global safe water group Blue Planet Run Foundation).

Visitors also are asked to register and make an online pledge to reduce their "impact on the planet" by giving up bottled water for a week, a month or a year. "This is something that's very top of mind with consumers, and we figured it was the right time to do it," says Hank Mercier, Brita's associate marketing manager.

Procter & Gamble PG is promoting its Pur faucet-mounted water filters with samples and fact sheets that spell out benefits for those who pull the plug on bottled water. Pur marketing executive Tom O'Brien says one filter can fill the equivalent of 3,200, 16-ounce water bottles and save users $600 to $1,000 a year. "We're saying it's healthier for your family, healthier for your family's wallet and healthier for the environment."

•Stylish refillables. New designs out last week from SIGG, a Swiss maker of 140 designs of aluminum drinking bottles, carry slogans such as: "Make love not landfill" and "Friends don't let friends drink from plastic." Its $15-to-$20 bottles sell at retailers such as Whole Foods WFMI and L.L. Bean.

They "are an accessory like your cellphone or your iPod," U.S. President Steve Wasik says.

Bottled-water marketers are pushing back by promoting its convenience and health merits.

They also are trying to address environmental criticism. The IBWA ran newspaper ads recently that included promotion of industry efforts to reduce packaging. Brands such as Aquafina, Coca-Cola's KO Dasani's and Nestlé's Poland Spring, Ozarka and Arrowhead have cut plastic use by 30% with thinner bottles. Ozarka ads promote the "eco" bottles with a tree hugging a man, a play on "tree hugger."

"We are doing what we can to make sure our environmental critics understand our positive environmental track record," says Jane Lazgin, Nestlé spokeswoman.

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