Feb 23, 2023 - News

Des Moines pushes to break bottled water habits

Illustration of a pitchfork lifting a jug of water.

Illustration: Gabriella Turrisi/Axios

DSM is taking part in a study to improve consumer confidence in its municipal tap water.

Why it matters: The U.S. has among the safest drinking water systems in the world, yet Americans spend billions of dollars each year on bottled water.

  • Our metro could be a testing ground to help break the nation's bottled water habit.

Catch up quick: Last October, the National Science Foundation awarded a $50,000 Civic Innovation Challenge grant to University of Iowa researchers Samantha Zuhlke and David Cwiertny to work with DSM Water Works and the public works department on the tap water project.

  • The ongoing six-month study involves interviewing community members and analyzing patterns in consumer water consumption.
  • The work will help assess how pervasive commercial water companies' presence is locally, a spokesperson for the water utility tells Axios.

Driving the news: The metro water team is now applying for a second stage of the grant.

  • If approved for the up to $1 million grant, its work would continue another year to implement pilot projects that could include outreach and education.

Zoom out: Zuhlke, an assistant professor at UI's School of Planning and Public Affairs, helped write a book last year about the relationship between consumer distrust and the commercial water industry.

  • Nationally, people are being misled into buying bottled water, which is less regulated, environmentally destructive and far more expensive than tap water.
  • Poor communities are more likely to drink bottled water, which might be linked to predatory advertising, Zuhlke tells Axios.

The other side: Bottled water is subject to government regulation that includes FDA packaging rules, Jill Culora, a spokesperson for the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA), tells Axios.

  • The organization's members additionally adhere to a "Bottled Water Code of Practice" that includes an annual plant inspection by an independent, third-party organization.
  • Bottled water has a smaller environmental footprint than other packaged drinks because its containers are lighter in weight and are 100% recyclable, Culora says.

The intrigue: IBWA is aware of "a small, yet vocal" group of people working to remove bottled water from vending machines and store shelves, Culora said.

Of note: IBWA does not consider tap water its marketplace competitor and supports public water system improvements, Culora says.


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