Waste, Water

By: James Looper, an Environmental Studies and Anthropology double major.

The following work was created for ENG 201: The Art of Rhetoric.

Brief description: “Waste, Water is a short documentary film that questions the culture surrounding life’s most valuable resource.”


For our final project of producing a short documentary film, as well as a treatment for an extended film, I decided to focus on an issue that is deeply important to me personally. Fortunately, this topic is also exceedingly relevant in current events, and is one of the greatest environmental and moral issues humanity faces on earth in this post-industrial age. My documentary, titled “Waste, Water” is an exploration of water as a necessity, something that we often forget and take for granted in the United States. As a broad topic I wish to demonstrate just how important the chemical compound H2O is to life, both physiologically as well as how its uses permeate all aspects of culture, industry, politics, and ethics.

Invention: Laying A Foundation

Within “Waste, Water” I hope to bring to focus the specific issue of water availability throughout the world. I want to show the audience how water is utilized, treated, and viewed across the globe. The specific topic of interest will lie in the United States single use water bottle bad habit. This is incredibly important to cover because not only does it have significant unfortunate consequences for the environment, but it is also completely unnecessary given the circumstance. Despite almost universal access to clean municipal drinking water, Americans consume a ludicrous 50 billion water bottles per year (Bottled). This staggering number is made all the more ridiculous because bottled water costs $7.50 per gallon, 2000 times as much as tap water and more than twice the price of gasoline (Boesler). In terms of oil, the amount of oil needed to produce 50 billion water bottles could power 1.3 million cars for a full year (Bottled). In other words the costs of maintaining this habit are astronomically high and for what reason?

There are a myriad of reasons one might cite for avoiding tap water, instead choosing to prefer bottled water, despite the price disparity, however, none of these reasons are legitimate. One might claim that bottled water tastes better because it is safer, this is far from the case however, as the EPA has the exact same standards for both tap and bottled drinking water (Livingston). Additionally the World Health Organization has shown that 90% of water bottles contain microplastic levels that are double that of tap water (Readfearn). The argument that single use water bottles are okay if they are recycled is also preposterous given the fact that an inane 91% of plastic bottles produced ARE NOT recycled (Nace). Taking the argument even further reveals that of the bottles that are recycled the efficiency rate, or percentage of material that is viable for reuse is only a 23% of that which has been recycled successfully (Bottled).

These facts and figures will be used as the core argument throughout my documentary in order to persuade the audience away from single use bottles. They provide insight into the water culture here in the United States and will be compared against imagery of water scarce areas in an effort to show the audience just how wasteful our habits are given our bountiful access to a life-sustaining resource that others do not.

Chances are, that the audience already knows the importance of water and that it is not always readily available to everyone in “3rd world” countries. Because of the circumstances that this is typically portrayed it often gives the impression that while these problems are certainly real, they are distant and therefore not impacted by choice made in the here and now. In order to remedy this unfortunate delusion, I plan to structure my film in such a way that displays the complex interconnectedness of this issue as a holistic structure that can be affected by small changes that can be made on an individual level. “Waste, Water” will be presented in 2 portions that while distinct, are also pieces that comprise a larger puzzle.

Arrangement Part 1: Us & Them

This first section of “Waste, Water” in and of itself will feel and be presented as two smaller sections. The reason why they will not, however, be formally separated is because of their inherent connectedness and duality. First, I will show the perspective of “them” that is to say people who live day to day, desperate for water abundance. This section will not use any sort of new ideas, and will present itself in many of the same ways the audience will have already seen them. This will establish a familiarity that will open the audience up and will, unlike other attempts, transition to content that will make “them” feel very personal and empathic. Then, I will show the perspective of “Us,” somebody washing a car, with the hose running and soap suds everywhere then the very same car a day later in a rainstorm, showing the unnecessary water use that characterizes our culture as well as the abundance of said water.

 A compilation of over-the-top water fountains at 5-star hotels in Las Vegas that cuts to the desert that surrounds, and the dammed rivers that are subverted to allow for such displays in this counterintuitive location. Additionally, in order to close the perceived cerebral gap between “us” and “them” I will show footage of people in areas of drinking water scarcity such as places in drought and places devastated by natural disasters as well as Flint, Michigan to show that these issue are not all that distant and to show how important something like bottled water is to those who cannot drink their tap water in comparison to the average person who purchases bottled water for some relatively insignificant reason.

This section will implore two main documentary modes. Primarily it will use the expository mode (as is consistent throughout the film) to convey basic ideas, facts, and imagery to the audience, via b-roll of news reels and borrowed footage of water scarce areas and communities that deal with dehydration. The expository mode is outlined by Bill Nichols in his “Introduction to Documentary” and is characterized by many of the techniques at use, including b-roll, narration, and interview footage (Nichols 121-124). This use of the expository mode will be supplemented by the poetic mode in the form of an occasional poetic shot that will be shown under some form of narration to drive a point home, either very deliberately, or subconsciously. The poetic mode, according to Nichols, is characterized by subjective interpretation of nontraditional presentations of a narrative.

One such poetic shot will be of a lone water fountain that when activated, the water arcs over the fountain and crashes in a continuous stream onto the floor. This shot will serve as a metaphor for our access to safe and clean tap water but our decision to instead buy bottled water and relegate tap water for rather paltry uses. Another poetic shot will be of a clear puddle of fresh rain water that is shown undisturbed for a second before being trampled through by someone’s foot, perhaps the puddle might look like one we saw “them” drinking out of earlier in the film. By displaying our lavish water use combined with our cultural refusal to embrace our fortunate access next to the fragility of life in water scarce areas I hope to demonstrate the irony of our ways to begin to inspire feelings of distaste and disdain that will ultimately lead to change.

Arrangement Part 2:  Small Solutions

This second portion of the documentary will feel much smaller and more personal. It will also focus on the expository mode, yet it will be comprised of much less second-hand footage and will instead feature many shots I can film myself, of bottled water in stores, in the hands of students, and simply of beautiful rivers and lakes. This portion will heavily feature interviews with multiple students some of which do and some of which do not use single-use plastic water bottles. I will ask many questions that will explore reasoning behind either choice. Intercut with footage from interviews will be b-roll and images perhaps previously used to bring a sort of cognitive dissonance to the piece, (e.g while someone talks about how gross tap water is there could be a shot of a dehydrated person searching for enough water to sustain them).

Additionally, I will be able ask follow-up questions to counterpoint answers, this will include mentioning the cost of bottled water and questioning why one would pay such a price when it is available for free. Additionally, I can cite statistics that show microplastic levels in single use water bottles to be higher than in tap, and the abhorrent recycling efficiency rates to persuade someone who justifies single use water bottles as safer, or okay if they reuse them and recycle them.  This sort of active participation in interview borrows from another of Nichols’ documentary modes, the participatory mode (Nichols 137-149).

This use of the participatory mode will extend into and mix well with the omnipresent expository mode, in order to make the documentary as a whole feel more personal. This will be accomplished by my presence in the film not only as the producer but also as the narrator who is able to explain and speak in a more “human” way than the traditional voice-of-god method.

Style: Inspiring Change

“Waste, Water” will rely heavily on the rhetorical concepts of Logos and Pathos to persuade the audience towards the desired outcome. Logos, detailed in ” A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms”, is the use of logic as an element of persuasion (Lanham 96). In my documentary logos will feature heavily, by quoting undeniable statistics and facts “Waste, Water” will outline why it is that reusable water bottles are the undisputed superior option to single-use plastic water bottles. This will be achieved in a few different ways for example, when someone who is stuck in the bad habit of reliance on single use water bottles hears that it costs 2000 times the amount of money to keep up their habit than to switch to tap, logic would dictate they are going to consider switching (Boesler).

 Additionally, at $7.50, the price of bottled water per gallon is more than double the price of gas per gallon (Boesler). The difference between water and gas of course, is that water is readily available for most, and is therefore unnecessary to purchase secondhand. Another use of logos in the documentary will be when the point is made that, if given the opportunity anyone would stop paying and receive free gas for life, so why not do the same for water?

Pathos, on the other hand, is the appeal to emotion in order to persuade (Lanham 111). Pathos will be used in “Waste, Water” by showing the disparity in how Americans treat water versus how the same life-giving substance in revered in water-scarce locations. Imagine imagery of humans in desperate search for hydration in the same breadth as a suburban man washing his car on a sunny day, where the soapy water drains into a storm drain never to be thought of again. By manipulating shots and transitions we can make these two very distant circumstances seem as similar in geography as they are in reality. Shots like these evoke sympathy, empathy, and guilt in an audience that are likely to change habits they once clung to.

Throughout the documentary I will not only be strengthening my argument, but also examining and displaying the holes in the argument for single-use water bottles. This rhetorical device, of exploring all scenarios and weighting their outcomes, is called deliberatio and will be weaved throughout all aspects of “Waste, Water” (Lanham 48-49). This technique, in addition to the prevalent use of logos and pathos will characterize the rhetorical style of the arguments presented and debunked in “Waste, Water”.

Memory: Learn and Adapt

“Waste, Water” is inspired by, and will be formed by combining the parts of various documentaries that have had an impact on myself. Being able to view past attempts in retrospect will allow me as a filmmaker to determine what did and did not work within an endeavor and to separate and then graft together all of the effective elements in order to create a film that is greater than the sum of its parts. The primary inspiration for the content and the historical context behind my desire to tackle this topic comes from the 2009 documentary “Tapped”, directed by Jason Lindsey. It was this film, which I watched in AP Environmental Science class in high school, that inspired me to completely drop single use water bottles as a part of my life. This film accomplished what it set out to do, at least on a small scale by having a lasting impact on myself, and it is the primary reason why today, I wish to continue its legacy and spread its message through my documentary.

For the process of making the film itself, three main inspirations can be credited for their contribution to my creative process. These films are “The Central Park 5” by Sarah Burns, Michael Moore’s approach to interview, and “Gasland” by Josh Fox. While watching her documentary “The Central Park 5” one choice made by Sarah Burns stood out to me as particularly effective, in the early moments of the documentary we are subjected to a few minutes of news reels cut together with newspaper headlines. I found this technique of splicing together primary sources into an information dense few minutes outstanding because it was able to convey an incredible amount of emotion, circumstance, and context surrounding the background of the central park 5 case in a short amount of time, with little effort. A similar technique will be seen in “Waste, Water” when covering the “facts and figures” that are crucial to the argument being made but would be droll to the audience if presented the wrong way.

Michael Moore’s approach to interview is unlike any other in the sense that it realizes new levels of interactivity, something that is evident to the audience as well as those he is interviewing, and whether they like it or not one cannot argue that it makes for an effective presentation of an argument. In “Waste, Water” the people I interview will be asked questions about their habits concerning water bottles, and rather than be limited to a one-sided conversation I will be shown asking follow-up questions that directly pressure previous statements, to disprove or strengthen a given side.

 When I think of my personal favorite documentary, the obvious one to come to mind is Josh Fox’s “Gasland”. “Gasland” earns this distinction for one primary reason, one that I would be remiss not to incorporate into my documentary. What separates “Gasland” from every other documentary I’ve seen is its ability to tell a personal, individual journey that is so effortlessly connected to the larger topic at hand. In this particular case Josh Fox’s story and how it relates to hydraulic fracturing wasn’t a choice made out of persuasiveness so much as necessity, but I will make the conscious choice to emulate this as best as possible. By providing my own narration when needed, and being an active participant in interviews I hope to achieve a similar end result as Josh Fox.


The theoretical “Waste, Water” will take advantage of a variety of effective techniques to create a uniquely persuasive documentary that will inspire action in the United States public, not by convincing them, but by showing them the err of their ways. By showing how monetarily ineffective and morally questionable the common use of the single use water bottle is change will come in the mindsets of the audience, followed by their actions. By blending the expository, poetic, and participatory mode the documentary will present itself in a manner that will be easily accessible and effective to the largest possible audience. By imploring rhetorical devices in addition to the statistics, documentary modes, and examples set by prior attempts within a two-act structure, my documentary “Waste, Water” will hopefully lead its audience to a new understanding of the life-sustaining resource that is water.

Works Cited

Boesler, Matthew. “Bottled Water Costs 2000 Times As Much As Tap Water.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 12 July 2013, http://www.businessinsider.com/bottled-water-costs-2000x-more-than-tap-2013-7.

“Bottled Water Facts.” Ban the Bottle, http://www.banthebottle.net/bottled-water-facts/.

Burns, Sarah, director. The Central Park Five. 2012.

Fox, Josh, director. Gasland. ATYPIK Films, 2011.

Lanham, Richard A. A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms. University of California Press, 1991.

Lindsey, Jason, director. Tapped. 2009.

Livingston, Amy. “Topics.” Money Crashers, http://www.moneycrashers.com/bottled-water-vs-tap-water-facts/.

Nace, Trevor. “We’re Now At A Million Plastic Bottles Per Minute – 91% Of Which Are Not Recycled.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 28 July 2017, http://www.forbes.com/sites/trevornace/2017/07/26/million-plastic-bottles-minute-91-not-recycled/#4cb42cd8292c.

Nichols, Bill. Introduction to Documentary. Indiana University Press, 2017.

Readfearn, Graham. “WHO Launches Health Review after Microplastics Found in 90% of Bottled Water.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 15 Mar. 2018, http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/mar/15/microplastics-found-in-more-than-90-of-bottled-water-study-says.

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