A Watery World

Unlike previous generations, who must have been chronically dehydrated by comparison, many young people today feel a need to carry around their own personal water supply clipped to a backpack or a shoulder bag. They often use a brightly colored plastic bottle with a screw-on cap known by its ungraceful brand name: Nalgene.

These bottles had their genesis in the laboratory—literally. They were originally manufactured as containers for chemical reagents. In the 1970s, enterprising lab technicians pilfered them for camping trips, because they were durable, leak-proof, and less likely than other bottles to add a plasticky taste to water. Nalgene, now probably the world’s best-known bottle manufacturer, got wise to the trend and began marketing them through camping supply stores. For many years, only outdoor types used them, inexplicably wrapping them in duct tape.

Today these bottles and their knock-off competitors are everywhere. Midwest Mountaineering, the West Bank’s venerable adventure store, saw its Nalgene bottle sales more than double between 1999 and 2002. The company’s product line has grown from the standard milky-white bottle with a blue cap to a rainbow of sizes and colors in transparent polycarbonate Lexan plastic.

Glacier blue is Nalgene’s most recent top-selling color, they say; others include sage green, honey yellow, and ruby red. (The latter have the unfortunate effect of making people look as if they are carrying around a copious urine sample or some spare plasma.)

Eric, a grad student in conservation biology, fits the old guard to a tee, from his mud-spattered mountaineering boots to his purple fleece jacket and scruffy beard. During a break from an academic conference the other day, he said he started carrying a Nalgene bottle fifteen years ago, at a time when he was backpacking a lot. Today he gulps from a beat-up, small-mouthed, smoke-colored bottle. “The only things that matter to me are performance and function,” he said with a sniff. “I find the recent trend of sorority girls carrying these newer bottles around as fashion accessories totally annoying.” His own reasons for carrying water around are twofold: to reduce waste from disposable containers and to ensure he’s drinking water he has personally filtered.

Yalda, a skinny, affable pre-med student at the U, may be part of the madding crowd Eric disdains. Even at a Dinkytown coffeeshop, she was drinking from her own water stash. She admitted that she bought her bottle because she was taken with way it looked. “Orange is my favorite color,” she said. She drinks a lot of water each day in pursuit of her two favorite sports, karate and figure skating.

Are compulsive water-chuggers doing themselves any good? In recent years, most self-help regimens have encouraged relentless hydration, pushing at least eight eight-ounce glasses of water a day (dubbed “8×8”). Even in the up-is-down world of low-carbohydrate dieting, water consumption is considered key. The Atkins diet recommends “8×8” as a minimum water intake (alcoholic or caffeinated beverages don’t count). An experiment with “8×8” by this embarrassingly sedentary writer yielded only an early summer cold and heightened awareness of tile patterns in the restroom.

On the other hand, it is possible to get too much water. In the 2002 Boston Marathon, one runner over-hydrated to the point of creating a fatal sodium deficiency. And one study linked chemicals that can leach from hard plastics to chromosomal damage in mouse eggs, leading one manufacturer to recommend hand-washing bottles with mild detergent to slow their deterioration.

Even if the mice give up the habit, the plastic-bottle trend may just be getting started. One vendor of customized tchotchkes told me that Wal-Mart recently ordered twenty-five million Lexan bottles from a Chinese manufacturer; that’s roughly one bottle for every eleven Americans, so drink up!—Dan Gilchrist