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Happy Water, er, Earth Day: Give up Bottled Water

· Archived ScienceBlog,Water

We live on solid ground, but the truth is, our planet is mostly covered in water. The famous writer Arthur C. Clarke noted this when he said, “How inappropriate to call this planet Earth when it is quite clearly Ocean.”

Today is Earth Day, when we celebrate the planet, and in particular the functioning ecosystem that supports all life, including our own. In recognition of Earth Day, here is a short piece about bottled water in the United States and most developed countries, with some basic facts that should help any readers still in doubt about the downsides of that industry.

The Money

Bottled water, served in single-serve plastic (PET) bottles, is staggeringly expensive. You don’t think about it when you only pay a couple of dollars for each little bottle, but over time, and compared to our high-quality tap water, bottled water is a couple of thousand times more expensive. Here’s a graph:

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The typical cost of bottled water versus tap water. (Source: P.Gleick 2013)

The Quality

There is no reason to believe that bottled water quality is any better than tap water quality despite the advertising hype and public perception. The laws that protect water quality for both are similar (but not identical – some bottled water regulations are weaker than tap water regulations). But enforcement and monitoring is far less consistent, less independent, and weaker for bottled water (partly regulated by the Food and Drug Administration as a food product) than tap water (regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency). Here is a list of over 100 bottled water “recalls” for contamination (pdf), and it is likely that many others have never been discovered or publicized. My favorite was the recall due to contamination with “crickets.” Really.

The Environmental Impact

The environmental impacts of bottled water are largely foisted on the public and our ecosystems in the form of large amounts of energy to produce the plastic and large amounts of plastic thrown away into our environment. It takes the equivalent of 17 million barrels of oil every year to make the PET water bottles we consume in the United States, and even more energy to move it, store it, and chill it (the IBWA pretends this is a “myth” but here is the link to the scientific paper (pdf) that discusses the massive energy requirement of bottled water). Most PET bottles are not recycled; most (more than 60%) are dumped in landfills or by the side of the roads.

Around 45% of all bottled water comes from local groundwater sources (sometimes labeled as “spring” water). In some regions, these aquifers have been overpumped, with adverse consequences for local wells and streams.

But the rest (around 55%) of all bottled water is simply taken from local municipal tap water systems. Sometimes it receives additional processing, but that tap water originally met all federal water quality standards, and cost a tiny fraction of what the bottled water industry subsequently charges for turning a public resource into a private commodity.

So, one thing you can do for the Earth today and every day? Cut back on your purchases of bottled water. Start to carry a refillable bottle around if you feel the need to rehydrate during the day. More and more drinking water fountains are being designed to fill bottles. Here is a new “GlobalTap” fountain at the San Francisco Airport.

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GlobalTap Fountain at the San Francisco Airport. (Source: P.Gleick 2013)


Far more information on the history, science, and consequences of bottled water can be found in the book “Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind our Obsession with Bottled Water” (Island Press, Washington DC).