Unbottled: The fight against plastic water and for water justice (Jaffee, 2023)

Isha Ray


Jaffee, D. (2023). Unbottled:  The fight against plastic water and for water justice. University of California Press, Berkeley. ISBN 9780520306615 (hardback US$85)/ 9780520306622 (paper back US$28)/ 9780520973718(ebook/US$28)

(URL: https://www.ucpress.edu/book/9780520306622/unbottled )

Isha Ray

University of California, Berkeley


To cite this review: Ray, I. (2023). Review of “Unbottled The Fight against Plastic Water and for Water Justice”, University California Press 2023 by D. Jaffee, Water Alternatives, http://www.water-alternatives.org/index.php/boh/item/357-unbottled


Human rights don’t come in plastic bottles


Daniel Jaffee’s Unbottled: The Fight Against Plastic Water and for Water Justice is a book whose title pretty much tells the reader where its author stands. The seven chapters work to convince the reader of this stance, covering the history, economics, and cultural dynamics of the extraordinary growth of the global bottled water sector. What was once a niche commodity – just four decades ago, says Jaffee – used by tourists and upscale restaurant-goers, is now everywhere. Of the top 10 bottled water consuming countries, six are low-and-middle-income (LMIC). In the US, bottled water accounts for an estimated 44% of the total adult water intake. At least in LMICs one could argue that piped and treated water is not accessible to large parts of the population, but what, asks Jaffee, can possibly explain the ubiquitous presence of bottled water where most of the population has cheap, safe, affordable water right out of the kitchen tap? And what does it mean for ensuring the human right to safe water?

Amidst the many questions that Jaffee takes on, these two truly motivate the book. He discusses the role of anti-bottled water and pro-tap movements (building on Harvey’s concept of accumulation by dispossession); conflicts over groundwater extraction between beverage companies and local communities; and the global “tsunami” (p. 69) of plastic waste from single-serving bottles. He convincingly argues that the arrival of cheap and lightweight plastics made bottled water the everyday commodity it now is (“One word: plastics”, he writes (p. 35), echoing the iconic scene from The Graduate). He (less-convincingly) posits that the anti-privatization and anti-bottle movements are, in effect, the same movement. He focuses on the US and Canada in his ethnography, including cases of extreme environmental injustice among minoritized communities. He also analyzes examples from the global South, but he does so with a light hand. Indeed, he suggests that LMICs cannot extend their water services fast enough because of structural adjustment and the debt burden, whereas it would be simpler to point out that the well-off in the global North and South are relatively well-served, while the poor and marginalized in both settings make do with poor (or no) services.

It makes sense that Jaffee’s core arguments are about the global North because he really wants to understand why people are adopting bottled water when they don’t have to. I focus on three sections of the book: how bottled water companies created the market for their product, how resistance to bottled water and water justice activism is (slowly) making inroads into Reclaiming the Tap, and what the growth of bottled water as a “normal” source of drinking water means for the human right to water.

Jaffee traces the growth of the bottled water market that is dominated by the Big Four: Nestlé, the Danone Group, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo. He shows how they advertise aggressively in the global North and the South, emphasizing the safety of their brands (even when they sell re-filtered municipal water (p. 32)); portraying their consumers as elite, attractive and healthy (p. 36); and relying on packaging and branding per se as signifiers of quality. Public utilities, by contrast, have no marketing budget. Of course, all private enterprises advertise. But Jaffee’s point is that these companies advertise by building on public distrust of the tap (leveraging spectacular failures such as Flint, Michigan and Jackson, Mississippi), or by creating distrust where utilities are still struggling to meet demand (in LMICs). “The biggest enemy is tap water” says a senior executive from PepsiCo (p. 55). If bottled water becomes the primary way in which safe drinking water needs are to be met, says Jaffee, then the industry may become a negative (and well-financed) force against the expansion of utility-based deliveries. Why should utilities even bother to treat their water to potable levels in these circumstances? In other words, what people used to think of as a service will gradually be re-conceptualized as a product.

Social movements based in the USA and Canada are pushing back against the enclosure of the common good that is a safe and affordable public water supply. Jaffee shows how city by city, campus by campus, social movements and youth movements are pushing back on the bottled water industry’s claims to health and purity, successfully bringing about bans on “plastic water”, and changing the culture around the normalization of bottled water. What Jaffee sees as the industry’s war against the tap must be fought on both a political and a cultural front, and he observes that this pro-tap anti-market movement is different from many green-consumption approaches that call for more (but sustainable) purchases. Overall, Jaffee argues that reclaiming-the-tap is slowly piercing the armor of the bottled water industry and reminds us of the crucial role of public vigilance and public action in ensuring water justice.

Finally, Jaffee strongly contests the idea that bottled water can play a role in meeting the UN-declared human right to water, though he observes that the UNICEF / WHO Joint Monitoring Program now accepts bottled water as one way in which to access safely managed water. This segment is a little brief, given how central the question of human rights is to Jaffee’s motivation. We can infer, however, that bottled water, an expensive and not always pure commodity, and marketed by entities whose behavior shows them to be negative stakeholders in the expansion of treated piped water, cannot be an entry point into realizing the human right to water. There are scholars who have argued that, especially in LMICs, small water vendors and bottled water suppliers do help to meet this crucial right. Jaffee does not confront this particular debate but it is one that conflates meeting a demand with realizing a right. If you have to pay at the point of use, for even a minimum level of use, whether or not you can afford to pay, that is not a right. If a need is met as an individual responsibility rather than as a social responsibility, it is not a right. These points are implicit, but present, in the book. To the question can bottled water meet the human right to water, then, Jaffee’s answer is: No. Hell, no.

Additional Info

  • Authors: Daniel Jaffee
  • Year of publication: 2023
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Reviewer: Isha Ray
  • Subject: Political ecology, Water governance, Water politics, Equity, Water economics, Privatisation
  • Type: Review
  • Language: English