Significant Figures by Peter Gleick

The numbers are in for 2012, and they are shocking. The Beverage Marketing Corporation, which tracks sales and consumption of beverages, is reporting that sales of bottled water grew nearly 7 percent between 2011 and 2012, with consumption reaching a staggering 30.8 gallons per person. And since I (and some of you) consume almost zero bottled water every year, there are people out there drinking far more than the average.

Thirty-six years ago, this industry didn’t exist. Americans drank fewer than two gallons of bottled water per year, and almost all of that was in the form of water from big office coolers. Figure 1 shows the dramatic exponential growth in bottled water sales over this period. There was a slight downturn in 2008 and 2009, attributed in part to a growing public campaign against bottled water and in part to the severe recession, but sales have resumed their upward climb as companies cut the price of bottles and launched an even more aggressive media and advertising blitz.

Bottled water sales per person in the United States, from 1976 to 2012. Data are from the Beverage Marketing Corporation. Graph by Peter Gleick.

Bottled water sales per person in the United States, from 1976 to 2012. Data are from the Beverage Marketing Corporation. Graph by Peter Gleick.

Despite having one of the best municipal tap water systems in the world, American consumers are flocking to commercial bottled water, which costs thousands of times more per gallon. Why? Four reasons:

  • First, we have been bombarded with advertisements that claim that our tap water is unsafe, or that bottled water is safer, healthier, and more hip, often with celebrity endorsements. (Thanks a lot, Jennifer.)
  • Second, public drinking water fountains have become increasingly hard to find. And the ones that exist are not being adequately maintained by our communities.
  • Third, people are increasingly fearful of our tap water, hearing stories about contamination, new chemicals that our treatment systems aren’t designed to remove, or occasional failures of infrastructure that isn’t being adequately maintained or improved.
  • Fourth, some people don’t like the taste of their tap water, or think they don’t.

Some people, including the bottled water industry, argue that drinking bottled water is better than drinking soft drinks. I agree. But that’s not what’s happening. The vast increase in bottled water sales have largely come at the expense of tap water, not soft drinks. And even if we pushed (as we should) to replace carbonated soft drinks with water, it should be tap water, not expensive bottled water.

This industry has very successfully turned a public resource into a private commodity. Sales of bottled water now are close to $12 billion a year, and in fact, total expenditures are far larger if you include the cost to consumers. (The sale figures don’t include retail mark-up or total consumer expenditures, I believe.)

But the true costs are even higher. 60 to 70% of all the plastic bottles sold – billions and billions of them – are never recycled, but end up in our garbage.  The Pacific Institute has calculated that the equivalent of 17 million barrels of oil are used to make the plastic in these bottles each year (here is a link to a .pdf of the peer-reviewed scientific paper), not including the additional energy required to drive the bottles around, power the refrigerators that cool them, or deal with the wastes. Some local groundwater depletion also occurs around big bottled water plants, raising concern in local communities in Maine, Michigan, California, Florida, and elsewhere.

We need action on this, including:

Efforts to upgrade and improve our tap water systems. Overall the U.S. has a great system; but it could and should be even better, with new technology to remove new contaminants, improvements to old pipe and distribution systems, better monitoring, and special assistance in rural areas dependent on vulnerable groundwater wells.

Education to consumers about the quality of our tap water, and the true environmental and economic costs of bottled water.

Better comprehensive independent monitoring and enforcement (and strengthening) of bottled water standards, which are not the same as tap water standards, and not as strong in several areas.

Better labeling of bottled water, to provide information on quality, the water source, and the elimination of misleading names and descriptions.

More aggressive and comprehensive plastic recycling: states with stronger recycling laws collect and recycle more plastic. And all bottlers should be required to use some fraction of recycled plastic content.

Improvements in access to drinking water fountains. The Pacific Institute has a beta-version of an Android app (free) that maps water fountains ( using an open-access database, but this is just a first step to what is needed – a comprehensive dataset of all public water fountains, the ability of any member of the public to add information on fountains (working/broken? clean/dirty?), and pressure to build new fountains where they don’t exist.

And finally, take individual actions: start carrying around a reusable, refillable bottle, if you can’t go from point A to point B without water. Support improvements in your tap water system. Demand better labeling and transparent information from bottled water companies. You’ll save money, reduce your environmental footprint, and help drive sales of bottled water back down.


[Peter Gleick is author of “Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water” published in 2010 by Island Press, Washington DC, available from Amazon or Island Press or your local bookstore.]


  1. #1 S. Williams
    April 25, 2013

    I have to say that I occasionally buy and drink bottled water in a few situations:

    1) Past airport security, where it is really the only water available. You can’t bring it in. That’s true of some other secured venues, too.

    2) Poor planning, i.e. I forgot to bring my glass bottle.

    If I do buy bottled water, I’ll try to reuse the bottle for the rest of the day by refilling it at a fountain or tap. I’m glad it exists, but it’s idiotic that we use it as much as we do. Really, it is so much cheaper to use a refillable bottle.

  2. #2 Mark T.
    April 25, 2013

    Isn’t this really about lowering the use of oil in developed nations so that there is less demand and hence, lowers the price of it so that developing nations can develop faster?

  3. #3 Jim McClellan
    Pensacola, Floridy na
    April 25, 2013

    Market data shows that the growth in bottled water has come directly from sales of soft drinks and other packaged beverages. This comparison to tap is a straw man. By the way, the most damaging attacks on municipal water supplies is from the Environmental Working Group. I’ve yet to see a bottled water ad that says anything negative about tap water. Certainly not from any of the major brands.

    • #4 Peter Gleick
      April 25, 2013

      Thanks for the comment. In fact, market data show that the growth in bottled water has NOT come from sales of other packaged beverages only, but largely from a decrease in tap water consumption. This is a key point. And I’ve seen plenty of attacks on tap water from bottled water ads, though you are correct that the “major” brands try to be less direct and more responsible in this area.

  4. #5 silence
    April 25, 2013

    You can bring an empty reusable bottle past US airport security, and fill it from a public fountain on the other side.

  5. #6 Jeremy
    April 25, 2013

    I’d be interested to see a comparison between environmental effect of commercial beverages – soft drink vs water etc. The rare occasions when I buy bottled water it’s because I’ve forgotten my water bottle and don’t want to drink the other options.

  6. #7 Perry Ismangil
    April 25, 2013

    Isn’t the real waste using drinking water for non – drinking such as gardening, bathing, and cleaning?

    I wonder if there are stats on how much drinkable water is actually used for drinking.

  7. #8 Douglas Watts
    April 25, 2013

    Peter, there is no profit to be made in touting the purity of tap water. There is lots of profit to be made in making people think tap water is unsafe and bottled water (which is just tap water) is much safer. Americans are far too stupid and incurious to even understand where their tap water comes from. On the upside, cholera epidemics are down.

  8. #9 mandas
    April 25, 2013

    Actually, there is a far easier solution to this problem. Ban them.

    That’s probably an anathema to the freedom loving, market drive, “I can destroy the world and no-one can stop me” mentality of most Americans. But we ban lots of environmentally harmful products (take DDT for example), why is this any different?

  9. #10 Dave
    Bloomington, MN
    April 26, 2013

    I know for sure that I am one who is driving up that average. I will typically drink about a gallon of water from our cooler while at the office, which equates to 250 gals/year. I think another factor that isn’t mentioned here is that water intake is beneficial to weight loss and metabolism, which may lead people to increase intake of water?

  10. #11 Martha
    Burlington, VT
    April 26, 2013

    Growth in bottled water sales is indeed from people switching from sugary drinks to bottled water. This is according to BMC. Bans have unintended consequences. Watch what happens to Norman when his town banned bottled water:

    • #12 Peter Gleick
      April 26, 2013

      I guess I’m going to have to do a blog post on these data and their misinterpretation. Big increase in bottled water, small drop in soda, big drop in tap water.

  11. #13 Physicist-retired
    New Jersey, USA
    April 26, 2013


    You say ” Some people, including the bottled water industry, argue that drinking bottled water is better than drinking soft drinks. I agree.”

    I’d always thought that soft drinks were ‘better’ because they tend to be bottled at locations closer to the end consumer. The carbon footprint due to transporation of this incredibly heavy substance (flavored water) is therefore lower than the footprint of ‘spring/mineral water’ that can be shipped from anywhere – even overseas.

    And the water in that locally-bottled soft drink is more likely to find it’s way back to it’s original source, or at least one close to that original source.

    All good things. Why do you prefer bottled water over soft drinks? I’m sure you have some reasons I haven’t considered.

    On a side note, the numbers are disturbing. Even at the climate rally in D.C. last February, I saw far, far too much bottled water. I think if people just became aware of the problem, they’d modify their behavior measureably.

  12. #14 Martha
    Burlington, VT
    April 26, 2013

    Drop in tap water? I can’t find that on EPA’s website. What is your source?

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  17. #19 Lily Mugford
    April 27, 2013

    I am a big advocate for carrying a refillable water bottle. I use a Brita system and love drinking water, far more than soft drinks or coffee.
    Thanks for all the info.

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  19. #21 Gavin Kirby
    April 27, 2013

    For goodness’ sake, use real units. This is supposed to be a science blog.

    • #22 Peter Gleick
      April 27, 2013

      What units bother you? Gallons per person per year? Do you prefer liters per person per year? Cubic meters per second? Ounces per millennia? Per day?

      Or do you object to “barrels of oil equivalent”? The original paper (linked in the blog post) uses megajoules and other metric energy units.

      I presume you can do unit conversions: but send another comment and I’d be happy to help.

  20. #23 Gavin Kirby
    April 27, 2013

    Using non-metric units in a scientific (or, generally, serious) context is the metrological equivalent of creationism. I knew of an engineering professor whose stance on imperial units was “If you want to quote speeds in furlongs per fortnight, you are free to do so, but don’t expect anyone else to take you seriously.”

    Even the British think that measuring fluids in ounces and gallons is silly, and we invented that awful system.

  21. #24 George Wiman
    April 28, 2013

    “Using non-metric units in a scientific (or, generally, serious) context is the metrological equivalent of creationism.”

    Wow Gavin – that’s some industrial-strength hyperbole there. The units themselves are real, if deprecated, and the thing they measure is real.

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  23. #26 Dr. Ajantha Perera
    Sri Lanka
    April 29, 2013

    We too have the same situation in Sri Lanka. The bottled water companies spread the message that their product is superior to tap water. The number of people who trust and depend on bottled was has increased over the last years. It is sad, as the bottled water companies use natural water resources that truly belong to all people in order to make money. They harvest ground water, which is really to be kept for the next generations. The only thing they give back to the people is huge number of empty plastic bottles that fill our dump sites. If they harvest rain water for this purpose, its a different issue, but they use the water that naturally fall free of charge to provide water for all animal and plant life. They use “the fear” in the minds of people to earn money.

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