The trouble with bottled water in Italy


When I first moved to Italy, I was fascinated by the culture of bottled water, a beverage that seemed to prevail at the table. In North America, drinking bottled mineral water is usually a sign of affluence and often an outright show of status when dining out. Products such as Bling H2O take this to new extremes. In Italy, however, conspicuous consumption is not necessarily the case; families of all social classes now regularly purchase and lug bottled water home for daily consumption.

When I moved to Umbria, home to many of Italy’s most popular mineral water springs, I began to study the historical and popular reasons for drinking bottled mineral water. Although most Italian tap water is perfectly potable, Italians insist on clinging to the bottle. There are a number of reasons for this.

Firstly, Italians have a long history of using mineral water for medicinal and health purposes. I recently published an article on the rise of the mineral water industry in Italy in the nineteenth century: “Acqua di Sangemini: The Italian Mineral Water Industry Finds a Place at the Table” Journal of Modern Italian Studies. Vol. 14(2): 184-198. In this article, I argue that part of mineral water’s popularity in Italy is still connected to popular beliefs about health (calcium & minerals) & medicine (digestion & disease). In addition, many of the Italians I interviewed claimed that they drank bottled water because the tap water in their area was too rich in mineral content, causing kidney stones and other urinary tract disorders when consumed on a daily basis.

Secondly, in connection with the first point, most of the water supply (municipal aqueducts and private wells) in Italy was largely unsafe and a major cause of disease up until just after World War II. In addition, in the not-so-distant past there have been many cases of municipal mismanagement of mineral water that have done very little to build public confidence in tap water.

Lastly, bottled water can historically be considered a status symbol in Italy. During the 1960s & 1970s, having recently moved to cities from the countryside, Italian housewives proudly had glass bottles of water delivered to their homes and later lugged home packages of plastic bottles. Having enough money to buy water was not only a display of affluence, but also a show of one’s modern lifestyle, which emphasized hygiene and the health of the family.

This morning there was an article in the New York Times, “City Known for Its Water Turns to Tap to Cut Trash”, which looks at how the city of Venice is trying to encourage citizens and tourists to drink tap water, l’acqua del sindaco (the mayor’s water), instead of buying water in plastic bottles which clog up the city’s beautiful canals and over-taxed waste system. Venice has created a marketing campaign for this initiative that even attempts to create a brad, Acqua Veritas (which literally translates as Truth Water). The city is even offer free carafes to encourage the consumption of tap water at the table.

Although I am hopeful for a plastic bottle free future, I believe that Italian attitudes towards tap water and daily habits will be difficult to change. Municipal governments generally have poor track records for managing drinking water and this is perhaps the biggest hurdle in this battle; there is a long history of distrust towards the government as well as many scandals and tragedies in handling public health that must be overcome. The historical and cultural contexts of going green mustn’t be overlooked in the case of Italian water.