Significant Figures by Peter Gleick

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:

 

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

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.

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

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

And to help you find public drinking water? Here is an Android app (WeTap) that lets you find nearby drinking water fountains or add new ones to a global, open source database. Information on WeTap is here.

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).

Comments

  1. […] Happy Water, er, Earth Day: Give up Bottled Water [Significant Figures by Peter Gleick] (scienceblogs.com) […]

  2. #2 Joan Honzay
    United States
    April 23, 2013

    I completely agree that bottled water is way over used today. It is terrible how the landfills are filling up with water bottles. However, not everyone has access to good drinkable water. I live in a rural area and get my water from a well. I few years ago I was having stomach issues and so were two of my children. The doctor suggested we have our water tested. We found out it was very high in nitrates and nitrates can cause chronic diarrhea. So we stared using only bottled water. Our symptoms cleared up. Now I’m not advocating using all water form small bottles that fill up the land fill. There are other alternatives. My husband and I purchased a reverse osmosis system to remove the nitrates from our water. We now use re-fillable water bottles and fill them with the water from our water system. Also when we travel we have each family member take a water bottle and fill them at the hotel before we take off for the day. Not only does it keep the water bottles out of the land fill it also keeps the floor of our vehicle free of water bottles. The point is that if we all use some common sense maybe we could turn the destruction of our planet around. Not only do we need to recycle we need to re-use and reduce. We need to be smart consumers of the natural resources we have.

    • #3 Peter Gleick
      April 23, 2013

      Joan, you raise a good point. There are still areas (especially rural ones) where wells are either not tested or regulated under the federal law, or where we know there is contamination such as from nitrates — a common problem where there is heavy fertilized agricultural activities, confined animal feeding operations, or leaking cesspools/septic tanks. In those cases, something must be done to provide clean water, or to purify water — the bottled water option is so expensive.

      Thank you for your perspective.

  3. #4 Jason
    Virginia
    April 24, 2013

    Why is it that you immediately focus on the economy of the Bottled Water industry when discussing earth day. Seems to me like a more pertinent discussion would be centered around recycling but instead you’re upset that people are making money on something you can get from your kitchen sink, if in fact you carried it with you wherever you go.

    I believe both tap and bottled water are important. Regarding plastics, I read recently that bottled water actually is the smallest carbon footprint in the plastic bottle drink industry. So why bottled water?

    As a parent, I do not let my kids drink soda and limit there juice intake. Eliminating bottled water as a beverage choice on the go would leave them to dehydrate and you can’t always count on public fountains being available. As a good parent, we try and plan ahead but sometimes need to convenience of vending machines and the ability to pay for water even though its pretty expensive.

  4. #5 Tony
    The Netherlands.
    April 26, 2013

    Jason,
    Whilst I agree that bottled water has a role to play, currently its place in our daily lives is far too large. Maybe if you examine the data more thoroughly on all of the associated aspects, you might come to a different point of view; this certainly applies to recycling because frankly it doesn’t work. We are a society geared to convenience, and with that comes laziness.
    As for the point you raise “you’re upset that people are making money on something you can get from your kitchen sink”, I confess I don’t understand that criticism, because yes, I’m as mad as hell about a product that is a total scam. We pay for the packaging and marketing!
    Your defense sounds suspiciously like it’s coming from some form of link with the bottled water industry.

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