Bottled Water – Social Implications

Water taps across the U.S. stand ready to deliver clean safe drinking water instantly and inexpensively, yet millions of people choose to buy bottled water. This worries me.

Hand Holding Open Bottle of Bottled Water

Water is the essential substance on earth, a necessity of life. Read that sentence again; now pause to consider your life without water.

Hijacking water for profit is wrong. I believe bottled water is a wasteful and even dangerous product. I admit this was not always the case, I used to buy and drink bottled water so I claim no moral high ground.

In this post, we will explore the reasons people give for buying bottled water and its social implications. The previous post, Bottled Water – Cost and Sustainability, provided a real-life cost comparison of bottled water versus tap water and covered the environmental impact of bottled water.

Why Do People Buy Bottled Water?

What does it say about our society that millions of people are choosing to pay an enormous premium to buy water packaged in throwaway containers instead of turning on the tap and filling up a glass or reusable water bottle?

People buy bottled water for a variety of reasons. We will tackle the top four in this post (not in any particular order).

  • Convenience
  • Taste
  • Concern about Tap Water Safety
  • Healthy Alternative to Other Packaged Beverages
Convenience

Two of Author's Reusable Water BottlesGrabbing a bottle of bottled water from the fridge is convenient; so is grabbing a reusable water bottle pre-filled with tap water and there is no lugging of cases of single-serve bottles or gallon jugs from the store to the car to the house.

Away from home, it can be challenging to find a place to refill a water bottle, but a store or vending machine selling bottled water is not always nearby either. Rather than adding more locations selling bottled water, let’s advocate for more public drinking fountains and water refilling stations so everyone can get a drink of water when they are out and about.

Buying bottled water for the sake of convenience does not add up, cost or time wise.

Taste

Until bottled water companies brought it to our attention, most people probably did not think about the taste of tap water. Now we do. Fortunately, tap water filtering devices are available to fit just about any budget, making buying bottled water for taste unnecessary.

Concern about Tap Water Safety

Green Coffee Mug Containing Black CoffeeThe bottled water industry has waged a decades-long campaign trying to convince us that our tap water is not safe to drink and encouraging us to buy bottled water.

Keep in mind, we do more than just drink tap water; we make our coffee, brush our teeth, and wash our hands and bodies with it too. If tap water were unsafe, drinking bottled water would not protect us.

Today most Americans can turn on their tap and receive clean safe drinking quality water for around a penny a gallon. However, this was not always so.

During the 1970s, water and air pollution had gotten so bad, Americans took to the streets and airways demanding the U.S. Congress take action to stop companies from dumping toxins into the air and water. In response, Congress established the Environmental Protection Agency and enacted far-reaching environmental legislation including the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Safe Drinking Water Act.

Sadly, some American’s tap water falls below EPA drinking quality standards or in rare cases is actually unsafe to drink. The culprits responsible for poor quality or unsafe drinking water are companies, corporations, and individuals who dump and spill toxins into our waterways and water bodies either accidentally or on purpose.

Let’s focus on stopping pollution, not stocking up on bottled water.

Healthy Alternative to Other Packaged Beverages

The bottled water industry is cashing in on Americans’ concerns about obesity by promoting bottled water as a healthier alternative to other packaged beverages. Many bottled water companies also sell those other beverages so whether we switch to bottled water or not they still make money.

Happily, we can say yes to drinking more water and no to bottled water by filling up our glasses and reusable water bottles with tap water.

Ethical Bottled Water

A scary trend in the bottled water industry is the emergence of so-called ethical bottled water brands. These companies and corporate divisions claim they will contribute a portion of each sale or a percentage of their profits towards providing disadvantaged people with access to clean drinking water, usually in developing countries.

Rows of Green Dollar Signs

Ethical bottled water brands target our wallets and our heartstrings. Convincing bottled water drinkers that buying ethical bottled water helps people in need enables customers to justify buying bottled water and feel good about it. Moreover, new customers may be enticed into buying bottled water because “It’s for a good cause.”

Helping communities gain access to clean drinking water is critical and important work, but selling more bottled water is not the way to do it.

Drinking Fountains and Water Refilling Stations

While preparing for this post, I was heartened to read about cities, counties, schools, colleges, and state and national parks that are discontinuing selling bottled water and making drinking water more accessible by deploying portable water refilling stations at events and installing hydration stations where thirsty people can get a drink of water or refill a reusable water bottle.

Evanston, IL Portable Water Refilling Station - Photo: Hannah Ellsbury, Ban the Bottle

Putting Bottled Water into Perspective

Every one of us living in the United States relies on one or more of the 73,400 municipal water systems to deliver clean safe drinking quality water to our homes, schools, and businesses and to whisk away everything we flush down our drains, disposals, and toilets, regardless of whether we drink bottled water or not.

In a 2013 report to Congress, the EPA stated our nation’s water infrastructure needs an investment of $348.2 billion over a 20-year period (2011-2030) to upgrade, replace, or install thousands of miles of pipes, water intake structures, treatment plants, storage tanks, and security measures. 1

U.S. bottled water drinkers spent $13 billion on bottled water in 2014 and they are expected to spend even more in 2015. 2 If sales remained at $13 billion a year, after 20 years, Americans would have spent $260 billion on bottled water, enough to cover 68% of the cost to upgrade and modernize the entire water infrastructure of the United States.

Little Girl Drinking a Glass of WaterClearly, the money exists in the overall money pool to ensure that every person in the United States has access to clean safe drinking water; it is just that some of it appears to have been misplaced in the bottled water industry’s bank accounts.

Let’s say yes to clean safe tap water for everyone and no to bottled water.

I am looking forward to the day when carrying around a reusable water bottle is the norm and filling it up is fast and free at millions of public water refilling stations across the country.

Related Posts

References

  1. U.S. EPA – Drinking Water Infrastructure Needs Survey and Assessment: Fifth Report to Congress, April 2013
  2. 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

Resources

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