Bottled Water Is A Ridiculous Waste

March 6, 2011

Dear EarthTalk: Isn’t it a waste that we buy water in plastic bottles when it is basically free out of our taps? Even health food stores, which should know better, sell it like crazy. When did Earth’s most abundant and free natural resource become a commercial beverage?

Bottled water has been a big-selling commercial beverage around the world since the late 1980s. According to the Worldwatch Institute, global bottled water consumption has more than quadrupled since 1990. Today Americans consume over 30 billion liters of water out of some 50 billion (mostly plastic) bottles every year. The Beverage Marketing Association reports that in 2008 bottled water comprised over 28 percent of the U.S. liquid refreshment beverage market. The only bottled drinks Americans consume more of are carbonated sodas like Coke and Pepsi.

And frankly, yes, it is a ridiculous waste that we obtain so much of our drinking water this way when it is free flowing and just as good if not better for you right out of the tap. According to the Earth Policy Institute (EPI), some 2.7 million tons of petroleum-derived plastic are used to bottle water around the world every year. “Making bottles to meet Americans’ demand for bottled water requires more than 1.5 million barrels of oil annually, enough to fuel some 100,000 U.S. cars for a year,” says EPI researcher Emily Arnold. And just because we can recycle these bottles does not mean that we do: The Container Recycling Institute reports that 86 percent of plastic water bottles in the U.S. end up as garbage or litter.

The financial costs to consumers are high, too: According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), bottled water costs up to 1,900 times more than tap water. And the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) reports that 90 percent or more of the money consumers shell out for it pays for everything but the water itself: bottling, packaging, shipping, marketing, other expenses, and, of course, profits.

EWG is particularly appalled at the lack of transparency by leading bottled water sellers as to the sources of their water and whether it is purified or has been tested for contaminants. According to a recent survey by the group, 18 percent of the 173 bottled waters on the U.S. market today fail to list the location of their source; a third disclose nothing about the treatment or purity of the water inside their plastic bottles.

“Among the ten best-selling brands, nine – Pepsi’s Aquafina, Coca-Cola’s Dasani, Crystal Geyser and six of seven Nestle brands – don’t answer at least one of those questions,” reports EWG. Only Nestle’s Pure Life Purified Water “discloses its specific geographic water source and treatment method – and offers an 800-number, website or mailing address where consumers can request a water quality test report.”

EWG recommends that consumer resist the urge to buy bottled water and go instead for filtered tap water. “You’ll save money, drink water that’s purer than tap water and help solve the global glut of plastic bottles,” the group advises, adding that it supports stronger federal standards to enforce consumers’ right to know about what’s in their bottled water besides water. Until that day comes, concerned consumes should check out EWG’s Bottled Water Scorecard, a free website that provides information on various bottled water brands, where they originate and whether and how they are treated to remove contaminants.

CONTACTS: Worldwatch Institute, www.worldwatch.org; The Beverage Marketing Association, www.beveragemarketing.com; EPI, www.earth-policy.org; EWG, www.ewg.org; NRDC, www.nrdc.org.

SEND YOUR ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTIONS TO: EarthTalk, c/o E The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; earthtalk@emagazine.com. E is a nonprofit publication. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe; Request a Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

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About the Author:

After a varied past of being a test driver for automotive television programs, a Hollywood studio lackey, and an online media sales director, David is now the publisher and editor of The Good Human. In his spare time he rides motorcycles, drinks good beer, and builds stuff in the garage. You can follow him on Twitter at @thegoodhuman or G+ at Google
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Comments (5)

  1. Jen says:

    It’s amazing what false info is put out to sell a bottle of water too! My MIL and I were doing our food shopping one weekend. She came walking up to check out with a case of bottled water. I gave my opinion on it, I don’t tend to keep my mouth shut… her response? Her daughter heard that city drinking water is recycled sewage water! Seriously, people believe this?? I laughed in her face, I couldn’t help it – she took this info in and processed it as fact – here’s your sign!

  2. Von Stoker says:

    It is really difficult to convince people to stop buying bottled water.

    Even after watching the ‘Blue Gold’ documentary with my roommates and reading quotes to them from the ‘Story of Stuff’ book, bottled water is something they just won’t give up even when they each agreed that they definitely should.

    My coworkers are the same… It’s like they feel they are being extra healthy by drinking a bunch of bottled water throughout the day.

    My solution… To give my coworkers refillable water bottles (its a real small company) and put a couple refillable water jugs of filtered water in my house for my roommates to drink from and make sure that I keep them filled. Hopefully it works!

  3. George Hite says:

    I don’t buy or use bottle water because of all the stuff you mentioned and some other reasons you didn’t mention.

    But I can not tell others to not consume bottled water if there tap water is completely toxic or in the case in Philadelphia (thanks to gas fracking) radioactive.

    I thank God that most of the toxic chemicals and junk in my tap water is filtered out with my water filtration system, but there are something that can not be filtered out… like radioactive material in the water.

    To great in depth articles from the new york times goes into fracking and other industry practices that pollute our water.
    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/13/us/13water.html?_r=2
    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/27/us/27gas.html?_r=1&src=me&ref=homepage

  4. George Hite says:

    I also forgot to mention… there are several issues we all need to address at the same time…
    * problems with bottled water
    * shortage of drinking water
    * industry polluting our water
    * people wasting water

    Note: there will always be a need to transport drinking water… we can not build infrastructure for piping clean drinking water everywhere.

    Clean drinking water is a serious issue I think is being overlooked by the majority of Americans…maybe because we seem to have so much of it readily available…but I think the availability of clean drinking water is is changing fast, maybe, unfortunately, then we will have some serious discussions on what is needed to be done.

  5. Steve Hansen says:

    Tap water can be pretty sketchy when you consider flouride.

    In the United States, many cities add flouride to the drinking water supply. This practice is controversial and the science supporting its use is questionable. In fact, most countries in Europe do not flouridate their water supplies, and their rate of dental cavities is comparable to those places that add flouride to the water supply.

    And just consider the ethics of water flouridation; it’s medicating everyone; it’s opt-out rather than opt-in. Follow that logic and all Americans would be medicated for obesity.