I just hate this commercial. Every time I see it I get absolutely furious. It is patently, obviously, in-your-face WRONG on just about every level. This is the latest Nestlé bottled water commercial, showing on Canadian TV. It shows a well-dressed, well-fed little white girl, complete with safety goggles, drinking bottled water and asking “what can we do for the planet”? Then it goes on to say that Nestlé is reducing the percentage of plastic used in their plastic bottles.
The voice-over goes: “What can we do for the planet? We’ve reduced the amount of plastic in our half liter bottles by 40%. Nestlé Pure Life – Pure Life begins now.” In teeny weeny print, at the bottom of the last screen, it says “since 2005”. The text with the ad on YouTube further explains: “All of our bottles of purified water are 100% recyclable and BPA free. Once recovered and sent to a recycler, our bottles are cleaned, dried and melted into pellets (called nurdles) and can be used for new bottles and all sorts of new, reusable things.”
If you look closer at what they are doing, this commercial is a lie per second. Every bit of it is highly debatable and doubtful.
- They are using sentimentality over children and the future to get their message traction. Might as well have been using a cute animal or gurgling baby. The problem is that that child is not typical of the kind who will need to drink bottled water to keep from getting sick. A third world, squatter town kid with no access to clean drinking water would not look like that. They would sure as heck not be “safety aware” with eye protection, and worried about the environment. They’d be worried about surviving the next day.
Lies, lies, lies
- Secondly, Canada is fortunate enough to be so big and so rainy that people have not yet managed to screw up the drinking water sources. The water here, especially in BC, is gorgeous, tasty, clear, clean, glacial and does not need much treatment. It comes out the taps more delicious than from a bottle. It’s a kind of running joke that newly landed people here buy water bottles in bulk, probably thinking the tap water is as bad as in their countries of origin, while people who have acculturated, look at restaurant servers as if they were making a joke when they ask you “sparkling or tap water?” If you are a Canadian, you say “tap water”, obviously. This is Canada.
- It’s ridiculous, if not immoral, to promote the idea that Nestlé’s bottled water, that comes from the same sources as the tap water, is somehow “better”, and that it’s OK to pay for it here in North America. Please remember, the next time you fork out your heard-earned dollars for a plastic-wrapped pack of plastic bottles, that Nestlé is the biggest food company in the world, with a market capitalization of roughly 231 billion Swiss francs, which is more than US$247 billion as of May 2015. And you are contributing to the wealth of the directors and shareholders.
Selling coals to Newcastle
- Nestlé’s owners, shareholders and directors are getting rich from selling what is essentially a basic human right (even though they dispute that and want to continue referring to it as a “need”) – the access to clean, safe drinking water. They get their product from resources owned by everyone – you and me – our rivers, lakes and underground reservoirs. And they pay very little for it, mostly just the cost of extraction of the water itself.
“Nestlé has come to dominate a controversial industry, spring by spring, often going into economically depressed municipalities with the promise of jobs and new infrastructure in exchange for tax breaks and access to a resource that’s scarce for millions. Where Nestlé encounters grass-roots resistance against its industrial-strength guzzling, it deploys lawyers; where it’s welcome, it can push the limits of that hospitality, sometimes with the acquiescence of state and local governments that are too cash-strapped or inept to say no. There are the usual costs of doing business, including transportation, infrastructure, and salaries. But Nestlé pays little for the product it bottles—sometimes a municipal rate and other times just a nominal extraction fee. In Michigan, it’s $200.” (Caroline Winter, Nestlé Makes Billions Bottling Water It Pays Nearly Nothing For, in Bloomberg Businessweek, Sept, 21, 2017, rtrvd. Sept. 30, 2018)
What they are doing is peddling their bottled water by targeting the fears of consumers about what’s in their tap water. That is understandable where the water treatment systems have broken down, like in Flint, in Michigan, or in highly polluted cities. But Nestlé’s products dominate the world as much as Coca Cola’s products do – necessary or not. The irony is that in rural communities that have rain and rivers, but not access to piped water, simple, cheap rainwater gathering systems and water cleaning methods will work just fine.
Contributing to multi-level world problems
I’m not a Greenie, but this sort of corporate holier-than-thou attitude does my head in, especially when it is so obvious that they are anything but holier-than-thou. In that byline about the percentage plastics in their bottles lies a whole different problem.
- Soft plastic containers, the kind used for Nestlé Pure life bottles, is a massive pollution problem. PET is Polyethylene terephthalate, sometimes written poly(ethylene terephthalate), commonly abbreviated PET1 or PETE1. PET1, the resin of which Pure Life bottles is made, is the softest plastic on a scale of 1-7. PET is a thermoplastic polymer resin of the polyester family, made from petrochemicals. Soft plastics should be recycled rather than sent to the landfill, but is hard to recycle. You need special equipment to chop up and shred the bottles to convert them into flakes and fibres. (Source: http://www.willowbrookrecycling.com/10-facts-plastic-recycling/) In fact, you need a whole bunch of specialized techniques and processes to produce PET flakes and even after that, the flakes cannot be used to make plastic bottles. Rather, due to their degradation properties and the chemicals used in the recycling process, they can only be used to make things that do not come into direct contact with food or drink.
- Empty PET packaging is discarded by the consumer, after use and becomes PET waste. In the recycling industry, this is referred to as “post-consumer PET.” Nestlé alone sold $7.7 billion worth of bottled water worldwide in 2016, with more than $343 million of it coming from Michigan, USA, where the company bottles Ice Mountain Natural Spring Water and Pure Life, its purified water line. That’s a lot of PET bottles. In fact, the Mecosta County, Michigan facility pumps out 500 to 1,200 bottles per minute.
- It’s creating a problem where there usually isn’t one in North America. People worrying about what’s in their tap water should remember that “water from commercial water bottles does not have to meet the same requirements that municipal tap water must meet. Bottled water is not controlled by the EPA, which requires tap water to be thoroughly tested and controlled. The water in your water bottle doesn’t have to meet these stringent guidelines.” (Source: Dr. Geoffrey Harris, MD, A Complete Guide to Reusing Plastic Bottles, rtrvd. 2018-09-20)
Part of systemic recycling problems
- In addition, PET is a problematic material. It can be difficult to clean and is somewhat porous. Bacteria can easily grow on the surface of PET containers, especially after it is covered with film from our lips and backwash. PET can begin to degrade, particularly after being exposed to heat, sunlight, or prolonged use. In fact, if you have ever reused a PET1 Pure Life bottle, after a few days you can taste the bitterness in the plastic.
- Nestlé’s statement about the “nurdles” being reused is pure baloney too.
“The production of virgin PET begins with the production of nurdles–teeny tiny plastic resin pellets–made from petroleum and other products. Unfortunately, nurdles are little troublemakers that often find their way into waterways. Additionally, making nurdles requires a lot of energy, much more then grinding up plastic bottles.” (Kelsey Abbott, How do you turn a few plastic bottles into polyester and performance apparel?, Science made Simple, rtvd. 2018-09-30)
Nurdles cannot be made from recycled bottles, only from raw resources. You surely cannot make “new water bottles” as the ad claims, from recycled PET1. These chopped up bottles are used to make plastic parking stops, park benches, or synthetic clothing like fleece. It is also frequently recycled through incineration, which is another problem altogether.
And the numbers are contradictory
- Nestlé has been increasing sales of its water products that are bottled in PET from 2005 to 2015. At the same time, it was increasing the amount of plastic materials used – a 9% increase over that ten-year period. The “Pure Life – Life Begins Now” ad campaign, from agency Publicis, began airing on TV in September 2017. The commercial claims that they have made a 40% reduction in materials used in the PET bottle since 2005. Consolidating the stats means that from 2015 to 2017 when the commercial aired, they reduced the materials used back down to 38%, in the space of twelve years. So the “40%” reduction they quote – since when was that and from which baseline? Who knows. Apart from that, if PET1 is now at less than 40%, what is the other 60% made of? Another kind of PET? Does using a harder PET explain their use of “nurdles” in the recycling process? That is not clear either.
Imagine what a difference this huge company could make if it decided to sell water in glass bottles (reuseable and recyclable), or decided rather to fix up water pipelines, build treatment facilities or pipelines, or cure people with diseases caught from dirty water, thereby getting people to provide their own water rather than having to buy Nestlé’s bottles. This would reduce their consumer market but actually do the world a lot of good. A good teacher or doctor knows that if they do their job well, they would make themselves redundant. Sure, by helping people to help themselves Nestlé would make themselves redundant, but that would be true philanthropy.
But this is not the way the company is going. The advertising campaign’s objectives were clearly stated by Andrius Dapkus, VP-general manager of Pure Life at Nestlé Waters North America: “to make the choice of Nestle Pure Life a conscious choice for our consumers, a purposeful choice. And we are going to do that by connecting the actions that we take as a brand to that choice,” he said.
I hope for all our sakes that the campaign does not work, but, judging by the fact that people do believe this kind of sentimental fantasy nonsense, it probably will. More so’s the pity.
So, now you know why I totally hate this ad.