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.
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).
- Concern about Tap Water Safety
- Healthy Alternative to Other Packaged Beverages
Grabbing 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.
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
The 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.
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.
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.
Clearly, 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.
- Bottled Water Alternatives
- Bottled Water – Cost and Sustainability
- Green Travel – Airport Water Bottle Empty and Refill Stations
- Introduction to Single-Serving Bottled Water
- Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 and Beyond
- Safe Drinking Water – What Can We Do?
- What is the Environmental Impact of Bottled Water?
- U.S. EPA – Drinking Water Infrastructure Needs Survey and Assessment: Fifth Report to Congress, April 2013
- 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
- Ban the Bottle – Mobile Water Station Saves Over 99,000 Single-Use Plastic Bottles, by Hannah Ellsbury, 2015/01/09
- Cleveland.com – Students raise funds to bring water bottle refilling stations to Medina High School, by Ann Norman, Sun News, 2015/01/14
- MyGrandCanyonPark.com – Where Can I Fill My Water Bottled in the Grand Canyon?
- National Parks Traveler – Nearly Two Dozen National Parks Ban Sales Of Disposable Plastic Water Bottles, by Kurt Repanshek, 2014/03/36
- Paradoxes of ethically branded bottled water: Constituting the solution to the world water crisis, by Roberta Hawkins and Jody Emel, 2014 Pre-Publication version for Cultural Geographics
- RYOT – San Francisco Just Became the First Major US City to Ban the Sale of Plastic Water Bottles, by Anna Culaba, 2014 (link not working as of September 2016)
- San Jose Mercury News – Santa Clara County adopts water bottle filling station ordinance, 2014/08/12
- Sonoma State Star – Water bottle refill stations shed light on sustainability, by Kristen Reeves, 2014/08/26
- The Guardian – Ethical bottled water companies find it hard to compete with Nestlé and Coke, by Oliver Balch, 2014/09/01
- University of North Carolina Wilmington – Choose to Reuse, 2014 (link not working as of November 2017)
- U.S. EPA – National Water Program Best Practices and End of Year Performance Report: Executive Summary, Fiscal Year 2013
- Wikipedia – Bottled Water