Bottled Water – Cost and Sustainability

Thirsty Americans shelled out $13 billion for 10.9 billion gallons of bottled water in 2014, an increase in sales and consumption.1 Is this good or bad news?

6 Single-Serving Bottles of Water

A possible upside is that drinking more water and less soda is good for our heath, providing that is what we are actually doing. The downside is that as bottled water consumption increases so does its environmental impact, which is not good for people or the planet.

When I began this blog in June 2012, composting and bottled water were on my mind and became the topics of the first several posts. A few months ago, I revisited composting and in the next two posts, we will return to the subject of bottled water.

Bottled Water – Industry Snapshot

Bottled water, once considered a niche product, now accounts for 17.8% of the packaged beverage market. By 2016, bottled water industry representatives are anticipating bottled water will overtake carbonated soft drinks and become the number one packaged beverage sold in the U.S.1

In 1976, annual consumption of bottled water was 1.6 gallons per capita, a mere blip on beverage sales charts. By 1995, bottled water consumption had increased to 11.6 gallons and continued to rise each year. Annual bottled water consumption reached 34.2 gallons per capita in 2014.1, 2, 6

Bottled water sold in single-serve PET plastic bottles topped all other beverage categories in 2014.1

“Every segment of the bottled water industry is growing and we consider bottled water to be the most successful mass-market beverage category in the U.S.”

—Gary Hemphill, Managing Director of Research, Beverage Marketing Corporation 1

Bottled Water – Cost

Shrink-Wrapped Single-Serving Bottles of Bottled Water on PalletTo provide a real life comparison of the cost of bottled water versus tap water, I conducted an informal study by surveying bottled water prices at my local grocery market and reviewing a year’s worth of my household water bills.

Bottled water prices varied and so did my water bills so I used the average figures. I also calculated the cost of tap water versus bottled water for my two-person household for one year based on each of us drinking eight 8-ounce glasses of water a day.

Water Type  Cost per Gallon Yearly Cost for 2 People
Tap Water $0.03 / gallon $10.65 / year
1-Gallon Jug Bottled Water $1.41 / gallon $514.65 / year
Case (24) 16.9-Ounce Bottled Water $1.44 / gallon $525.60 / year

In the above scenario, drinking bottled water would cost over $500 more a year than tap water. Taking the long view, drinking bottled water over 20 years would cost an additional $10,000 for just two people! Tap water is a great deal.

You too can easily conduct your own study to find out how much your bottled water habit is costing you or figure out how much you are saving by drinking water from the tap.

Bottled Water – Environmental Impact

The environmental impact of bottled water includes extracting, refining, and processing petroleum to make plastic feedstock, manufacturing plastic bottles, transporting empty bottles, transporting water, cleaning bottles, processing water, filling bottles, transporting filled bottles, and refrigerating some bottles. Regardless of whether empty water bottles are tossed in the trash or a recycle bin, disposing of them entails more transportation and processing. All this takes energy and water and generates waste and pollution.

This post highlights three aspects of the environmental impact of bottled water. To learn more read the What is the Environmental Impact of Bottled Water? post and check out the resources section below.

Water

Bottled water makers source their water from natural springs, groundwater, and the same municipal water systems that supply our tap water, these sources make up the overall water supply.

It takes water to make bottled water. A 2013 water use study performed on behalf of the International Bottled Water Association found that bottled water facilities used 1.39 liters of water to produce 1 liter of bottled water. 3 This does not include the water used during plastic bottle manufacturing so overall water use is actually higher.

Thus, producing 10.9 billion gallons of bottled water in 2014 required drawing an additional 4.2 billion gallons of water from the overall water supply. That is enough water to meet the daily drinking water needs of 2.1 million people (eight 8-ounce glasses a day).

Using extra water to make bottled water is, well, wasteful. Drawing water from a drought-prone or drought-stricken area to produce bottled water is actively harmful.

Energy

About 96% of the energy (electricity and fuel) consumed by the bottled water industry goes into producing disposable plastic bottles, transporting water by tanker truck, and driving filled bottles from bottling plants to stores, offices, and homes across the country.

In 2014, delivery trucks hit the highways carrying billions of plastic bottles containing 10.9 billion gallons of bottled water weighing in at 87.2 billion pounds, plus the weight of the bottles and packaging. Weight is a key factor in transportation fuel consumption and carbon emissions.

Poland Spring Tanker Truck Carrying Water for Bottling - Photo: Portland Press Herald - John Patriquin
Poland Spring Truck Carrying Water for Bottling – Photo: Portland Press Herald – John Patriquin
Waste

Most plastic water bottles belong to the PET bottles and jars category of municipal waste as defined by the U.S. EPA, which is measured and reported by weight. Comparing data from the 2010 and 2012 U.S. EPA municipal waste reports puts plastic bottle recycling in perspective.

PET bottle and jar recycling increased by from 29.2% in 2010 to 30.8% in 2012. Unfortunately, PET bottle and jar generation increased too, which resulted in 40 thousands of tons more PET bottles and jars ending up in landfills in 2012 than in 2010, a 2.1% increase.4, 5

Bottled Water – Industry Sustainability Efforts

In an attempt to make bottled water seem more eco-friendly, reduce costs, and gain market share, manufacturers have introduced bottles made with less plastic, or with a percentage of recycled plastic, or from plant-based plastics.

Bottling plants have implemented improvements to reduce water waste. Other supposed innovations include a twistable bottle that takes up less space in a recycle bin, using a box instead of a bottle or making bottles out of food waste from other company divisions.

I have read umpteen articles, web pages, and reports about bottled water pro and con, and have yet to see a statement from anyone claiming bottled water actually improves or is good for the environment. Making bottled water less worse does not make it an environmentally sound or sustainable product.

In the next post, read about the social implications of bottled water.

Related Posts

References

  1. International Bottled Water Association – Bottled Water Sales and Consumption Projected to Increase in 2014, Expected to be the Number One Packaged Drink by 2016, 2014/12/04
  2. ScienceBlogs – Bottled Water Sales: The Shocking Reality, by Peter Gleick, 2013/04/25
  3. International Bottled Water Association – Water Use Benchmarking Study: Executive Summary, prepared by Antea Group, 2013/10/21
  4. U.S. EPA – Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States: Tables and Figures for 2010, December 2011
  5. U.S. EPA – Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States: Tables and Figures for 2012, February 2014
  6. International Bottled Water Association – Recent Survey Results find that Americans Should Drink More Water and They Want Bottled Water Readily Available, 2015/01/26

Resources

Updated: 2015/01/30

Author: Linda Poppenheimer

Linda researches and writes about environmental topics to share information, spark conversation, and convince people to take action to keep earth habitable for all. She believes our individual actions do matter—it all adds up.

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