A Return to Reuse, The Journey Through the History of Bottled Water
Humans have relied on access to clean water since the dawn of time; sometimes, we need it to be portable and come along with us. From the banks of the Euphrates to the vast plains of Africa, how humans have sourced, stored, and consumed water has evolved dramatically over time. Shockingly today, 1 million single-use plastic bottles of water are consumed every minute by humans worldwide. This staggering number underscores the profound impact of our modern consumption habits on the environment. As we trace the journey of water from ancient clay pots to today's ubiquitous plastic bottles, it's essential to reflect on our role in shaping the future of reuse and how we drink water.
Water consumption practices throughout history
In the fertile crescent of Mesopotamia, the Sumerians used extremely deep wells for drinking clean water. They then stored the water in clay pots that were functional and also bore intricate designs, reflecting the importance of water in their daily lives.
In the vast African plains, early humans relied on natural water sources like rivers, lakes, and springs. They developed tools like the calabash, made from gourds, to carry water. Over time, as communities settled, they dug wells, ensuring a steady water supply even in arid regions.
The mighty Nile was the lifeblood of ancient Egypt. Egyptians used shadoofs, a hand-operated device, to draw water from the Nile for irrigation and consumption. They stored water in large clay jars called "Olla," often cooled in shaded areas, to provide respite from the desert heat.
The first people who crossed the Bering Strait from Siberia to America around 15,000 years ago encountered a vast, uncharted land. They drank from pristine glacial streams and melted ice. Over time, they developed containers from animal bladders and skins to transport water during their long migrations.
In the Valley of Mexico, the Aztecs built an impressive city, Tenochtitlan. They constructed chinampas, or floating gardens, to grow crops and sourced fresh water from springs using aqueducts. They stored water in large pottery vessels, ensuring their city thrived despite being surrounded by brackish waters.
The dawn of commercially bottled water in Europe and the U.S.
In 1622, the UK's Holy Well bottling plant began selling bottled water, marking one of the earliest commercial ventures in this domain. The 1700s saw a surge in the bottling of mineral spring water across Europe and the U.S., driven by beliefs in the water's therapeutic properties. This water was often sold in pharmacies as a medicinal remedy until the 1900s.
Carbonation: a fizzy revolution
1783 brought a significant innovation when Johann Jacob Schweppe manufactured carbonated water in Geneva, Switzerland. This attempt to replicate the natural fizziness of mineral water led to the foundation of the renowned Schweppes Company. By 1809, carbonated water's popularity skyrocketed in the U.S., with Joseph Hawkins patenting the production of "imitation mineral water." Advances in bottling and reduced glass costs, combined with public health concerns like cholera, resulted in millions of bottles sold annually by the mid-1800s.
The glass era: spring water's luxurious rise
Before the advent of plastic, glass was the material of choice for bottling water. The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw a surge in the popularity of spring water, touted for its purity and health benefits. Springs, often located in picturesque mountainous regions, were believed to offer water that was not only refreshing but also therapeutic.
European spas and health resorts played a pivotal role in this trend. Places like Vichy in France and San Pellegrino in Italy became synonymous with luxury and well-being. The water from these springs was bottled in beautifully crafted glass bottles, often sealed with a cork or a porcelain stopper. These bottles were not just containers but a symbol of status and sophistication.
The allure of spring water was not limited to Europe. In the United States, brands like Poland Spring in Maine began bottling their water as early as the 1840s. Advertisements from this era spoke of the "healing properties" of spring water, and it wasn't uncommon for doctors to recommend it as a remedy for various ailments.
The rise of spring water bottled in glass coincided with the growth of urban centers and increased industrialization. As cities expanded and industrial waste polluted many local water sources, the demand for clean, pure water grew. Spring and mineral water, with its pristine image, was ideal for glass bottles at the time.
By the 1980s, however, the convenience of plastic began to overshadow glass. Plastic was lighter, unbreakable, cheaper to produce, not to mention highly profitable. But the elegance and sustainability of glass never truly faded.
The plastic era and beyond
The late 1960s and early 1970s marked the beginning of the plastic era. In 1968, the French mineral water company Vittel began using PVC (yes, highly toxic PVC) packaging for its primary water product. This move signaled the industry's gradual shift from glass to plastic.
However, the 1970s marked a turning point. The patenting of Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles in 1973 revolutionized the industry. These were the first plastic bottles capable of containing carbonation, offering a high ROI alternative to glass. Between 1977 and 1981, Perrier's marketing campaigns positioned it as "Earth's First Soft Drink," signaling the commercial dominance of bottled water.
1973 was a landmark year. Nathaniel Wyeth of DuPont, an American inventor, patented the first plastic water bottle. The same year, The Mountain Spring Water Company in California introduced the first commercial plastic water bottle. This innovation made water more portable and convenient than ever before.
The late 1980s and 1990s saw rapid changes in the bottled water landscape. In 1986, the Environmental Protection Agency warned Americans about the potentially high levels of lead in tap water. This warning, coupled with the introduction of the first single-use plastic water bottle by Perrier the same year, led to a surge in bottled water's popularity. By the late 1980s, bottled water had become a fashion statement, with NYC supermodels carrying brands like Evian. The trend was further popularized by movies like "Troop Beverly Hills," which featured plastic bottled water product placements.
The 1990s solidified bottled water's place in popular culture. PepsiCo introduced Aquafina in 1994, and Coke followed with Dansani in 1999. Interestingly, both these brands used filtered tap water, making bottled water accessible to the masses.
However, with the rise of single-use plastic water bottles came growing environmental concerns. These bottles, which took centuries to decompose, if ever, began littering landscapes, clogging waterways, and contributing to the global plastic pollution crisis we know today.
Fast forward to the 20th century, and the way humans store and consume water has undergone a seismic shift. The advent of plastic in the 1960s and 1970s revolutionized water storage. However, the convenience of single-use plastic bottles comes at an environmental cost.
The bottled vs. tap water wars
The early 2000s witnessed intense debates between bottled and tap water proponents. Beverage companies capitalized on consumers' fears of tap water contamination. Brands like Brita launched campaigns suggesting that tap water was inferior, further driving the bottled water trend.
Rewriting the future, a return to reuse
Today, there's a wise move back to refillable bottles. A renewed interest in making smart choices for more sustainable water consumption is here. Aluminum is the most sustainable material of today, as high recycling and recovery rates exist. The PATH community is leading the way, powering up a revolution with refillable aluminum bottles reminiscent of the vessels our ancestors used. It's a full-circle moment, a return to sustainable practices that ancient civilizations inherently understood.
Following the journey of water consumption is a testament to human ingenuity and adaptability. As we look to the future, may we draw inspiration from our past, ensuring that the next chapter in our water story is one of sustainability and reverence for our planet.
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