Americans drink vast quantities of bottled water, in part because we’ve bought into the idea that it is somehow safer than tap water. The US is the world’s largest total consumer of bottled water. In 2011, we bought 9.1 billion gallons — a record amount — and per capita consumption reached a new high of 29.2 gallons. Many of us don’t realize, however, that drinking bottled water takes a toll on the environment and also has the potential to be harmful to our health.
Despite what we are led to believe, bottled water is no safer or purer than tap water. Some bottled water is simply municipal tap water adorned in packaging, falsely labeled as pristine spring water and sold at an exorbitant price. In fact, almost 50 percent of bottled water is actually from a tap!
In the US, bottled water and tap water are regulated by different agencies. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ensures that our tap water is clean, safe and drinkable, requiring utility companies to test municipal water for nearly 100 chemicals and characteristics, hundreds of times per month. Water providers are required to notify the public if there is an issue with their tap water. Bottled water is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) only when it is sold over state lines. Otherwise it is regulated by the state in which it was produced. While the type of testing for bottled water is similar to that for tap water, the frequency of testing is much lower and bottlers are not obligated to notify consumers of issues.
Do you know what’s really in your water bottle?
Where does the water come from? Is it purified? How? Have tests found any contaminants?
Environmental Working Group surveyed 173 unique water bottle products and asked those questions about each product. They created a scorecard to let consumers know how transparent all those water bottlers are. How did your brand do?
Numerous other differences exist which call into question the safety of bottled water. Beyond those concerns, bottled water has several environmental concerns as well. The plastic bottles, primarily made of PET plastics, are made from a hydrocarbon extracted from crude oil. In fact, in order to meet annual US demand just for production of the plastic bottles, about 17.6 million barrels of oil are required, or the fuel equivalent of about one million vehicles each year. Additionally, fuel is required for filtering, packaging and shipping from manufacturing plants to stores and vending machines. Based on the number of water bottles purchased in the US in 2007 alone, it took an energy equivalent of between 32 and 54 million barrels of oil to manufacture the bottles, produce ready-to-sell bottles of water and transport all the bottles to store shelves.
In addition to all the energy involved, it takes as much water to make a plastic bottle as is contained within the bottle. The gallons of water and barrels of oil really add up when you consider that almost all water bottles are made from virgin plastic.
Once emptied, the bottles become a major source of waste. In the US, less than 20 percent are recycled, with the rest going to the garbage and ultimately into landfills where they never really biodegrade. As a result, millions of tons of PET plastic pile up each year in landfills across America. Many plastic bottles also end up in waterways or the ocean where they break down into small pieces and get ingested by birds and sea life.
Beverage companies can also significantly impact communities with their bottling operations. The companies extract vast quantities of water, often make huge profits and can put communities at risk of facing depleted resources. Despite promises that bottling operations will bring employment, in reality, they create few new jobs.
If the costs of bottled water to communities and the environment are high, the costs to consumers are even higher. Bottled water costs thousands of times more than tap water. Drinking 64 ounces per day of bottled water could cost well over $1,000 per year. Those same 64 ounces per day in tap water would cost less than 50 cents for the whole year! Drinking bottled water just doesn’t make sense (or cents).
Rather than spend so much on bottled water, serious investment in public water and wastewater treatment systems is needed. The US has some of the safest tap water in the world, yet our water infrastructure is neglected and our water resources and public water supply is being degraded. It’s time we leave the bottles behind and rediscover the deliciousness of tap water.