The Water Wars an' Woes: Bottled vs. Tap?

Do you drink bottled water or tap water? Water from a cooler (which is a big giant bottle) or from a filter built into a refrigerator or sink? Or do you Britta?

(Yes, let me be the first to verb that noun .... )

Increasingly we see resistance to bottled water. The Britta ads (one hour in a meeting, forever in a landfill) ... even if they are inaccurate, as most bottles are probably recycled ... may have an effect. I have seen, heard of, and even experienced the admonishment of anti-bottle activists (though I quickly add: I almost never drink bottled water. But I do occasionally. But probably, the bottle you see me drinking out of contains water I just put in there to refill it.)

Anyhow, there is a sea change in the air.

The US Conference of Mayors in June passed a resolution calling for a phasing out of bottled water by municipalities and promotion of the importance of public water supplies.

While largely symbolic, the vote highlighted a growing movement opposing regular use of bottled water because of its plastic waste and energy costs to transport drinking supplies.

Janet Larsen, director of research at the Earth Policy Institute, cites a "backlash against bottled water as more people are realizing what they get out of the bottles is not any better than what they get out of the faucet."

The Pacific Institute, a California think thank on sustainability issues, contends that producing bottles for US water consumption required the equivalent of more than 17 million barrels of oil in 2006, not including the energy for transportation.

The group says bottling water for Americans produces more than 2.5 million tons of carbon dioxide and consumes three liters of water for each liter of bottled water produced.

I think this means that a total of 2. 5 million tons of carbon dioxide is produced by the entire water in a bottle thing. Aside from that, I think this means that 300 percent of the water you drink is 'consumed.' These statistics are very annoying.

The first one is very annoying because .. what does 2.5 million tons of carbon dioxide mean? How much carbon (or carbon dioxide) is that compared to the total we 'produce' every year?

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm sure that the transport of water in the most efficient way possible is what we want. Mostly clean drinkable water with the least energy. But I want to know what the truth is, not what some agency that for all I know is being paid off by Britta says. Furthermore, I doubt that the answer is the same for every context in every part of the US or the world.

It is also worth noting that this number ... 2.5 million tons ... is not being presented relative to the total amount of carbon or CO2, but also, this number is not being presented in relation to the 'otherwise' number. The water does not come pouring out of our taps without expendatire of energy. How much water does it take to 'produce' the water coming out of the tap? Maybe more than 3:1! How much carbon or CO2 is release or produced or whatever you want to call it by city water systems based on wells using water towers? And so on.

What is the difference between bottled and tap water in terms of contamination and safety? That depends. By and large both are safe, but certain individual sources of tap water should be avoided or filtered. At the same time, some bottled water is just bottled up tap water (in which I must presume they spill two liters for every liter they get into the bottle, if the above statistics are to be believed).

The bottled water industry, when speaking directly about this issue, likes to use fear to sell their product.

Kevin Keane of the American Beverage Association said the mayors' resolution was "just cynical politics. It's like being against rope until you need a lifeline."

Keane says the bottled water industry is needed for communities hit by floods or other natural disasters and compromised municipal water systems.

Bottled water "is convenient and a good tasting beverage, especially in this day when you have fewer water fountains and even when you have them, people are skeptical about using them."

Fuck anybody who uses fear to sell their product these days.

Oh, and then there is the evil corporation angle:

Beyond questions of safety and environment, some activists say the bottled water industry is seizing a public resource.

In the northeast state of Maine, a battle is brewing over access to a large aquifer by Poland Spring, a large US bottler owned by Swiss-based Nestle.

"Nestle's water grab is ruining streams, ponds, wells and aquifers," said Judy Grant of the activist group Corporate Accountability.

"Nestle's practices are raising serious questions about who should be allowed to control water, our most essential resource, and to what end."

Nestles. Always into something. Aren't we still boycotting them for killing all those babies in Africa and India?

2007 emissions from the largest coal burning power plant in the US: 27,200,200 tons*.

Oh, and if your water tastes kind of icky? It could be THIS STUFF in there...

Source of the above quotes.


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Well - I have no strong preference - but tap water is cheaper. However, about 13 months ago, I bought a bottle of bottled water, and started using the bottle to carry my water about in. I used it daily for about 6 months, and then someone bought me a nalgene. After about 4 months the flip - top on the nalgene wore out, and would no longer stay closed. I went back to using the cheap 99 cent bottle that was then 10 months old. Now it has seen another 3 months of daily use... no problems yet. So the water is nothing to write home about, but the plastic bottle is cheap and durable.

... even if they are inaccurate, as most bottles are probably recycled ...

Seriously? Maybe in states that put bottle deposits on them. The sources I managed to find with a quick Google ranged from 12% to 40% of plastic bottles are recycled and a couple indicated that those percentages are declining.

Bah. Humbug. People bitch and moan about $4-a-gallon gas, then they turn around and pay $2 for a quart (sometimes less) of some fizzy water with a fancy name, or Gatorade, or some kind of "protein water" (whateverthefuck that means) that's full of artificial sweeteners and colors.

That water is twice as expensive as gas, it all came out of the same ground as tap water, and then you figure in the gas needed to transport it to your local grocery store...... WTF are these idiots thinking? If the thought of drinking regular tap water grosses you out that much, get a Brita, for Ceiling Cat's sake!

I'll stick to Schuylkill's Finest, thank you very much. Now if you'll excuse me, my Big Squeezer bottle is empty - gotta go refill it.

By themadlolscientist (not verified) on 30 Jun 2008 #permalink

I prefer tap, parents prefer bottled. Considering how I often get "Why are you so angry" every time I express outrage about something political or religious, I don't see that changing, but I do at least have them using reusable water bottles for some things. Too bad they won't get in the habit of using reusable shopping bags, of which we have plenty.

I used to drink primarily tap in Jupiter, FL (mostly reverse-osmosis filtered seawater). The water here in Alabama is not as good, so I tend to filter it. My wife prefers Brita, but I usually use the fridge filter (she likes the filter on the new fridge and will probably use that more).

Interestingly, we rarely used to drink bottled water but sort of got into the habit after all of the hurricanes that hit us. The wife used to drink bottled water all the time. We do it much less these days.

By Mr. Upright (not verified) on 30 Jun 2008 #permalink

Btw, here's a graph of carbon emissions:…
So you can see the bottled water business is change lost in the cushions of your dollhouse, compared to the year 2000 emissions of over 6500 million metric tons. However - for the vast majority of its users, bottled water is entirely unnecessary, and trivial to do without.

Clean tap water is such a triumph of civilization. I use an old glass tea bottle from the vending machine and fill it from the drinking fountain.

Alas, most bottles are not recycled if my experience on-campus is any indication. Maybe one-third on a good day. And certain people seem to take a perverse pride in throwing aluminum in the trash.

Getting headaches from both dehydration and too much corn syrup, I drink a fair amount of water. Almost none of it is bottled.

We installed an under-sink filter for all our cooking and drinking water, since Minneapolis water gets funky tasting when the algae blooms or when there are too many rotting leaves in the storm drains. Harmless but nasty. The last filter lasted several years, and that was before we put it on a separate tap so we don't use up the filter on washing water.

There are Nalgene bottles at work and home to tote it around if we're traveling. About the only time I end up with bottled water is when plans change unexpectedly while we're out.

Here in Minnesota we are very good at recycling in the cities and on the campus. It is our nature to be this way. We also have a high volunteerism rate. And the women are strong and the men are good looking. And so on.

And we've perfected a dead-eye stare specifically for people who litter or fail to recycle. Not that we'd say anything, of course. That wouldn't be nice.

One of the most egregious bottled water anecdotes I can think of involves liters of water from Fiji provided at a conference in the Rocky Mtns, in a city at an elevation of nearly 8000 ft above sea level. Yes, it's important to drink lots of water at high altitudes, but the conference organizers did provide huge pitchers of iced tap water that was perfectly fine. I took one bottle of the Fiji water, and refilled it repeatedly from the pitchers, to take outside for hiking and soccer games.

And certain people seem to take a perverse pride in throwing aluminum in the trash.

Or out the window of their car or SUV. One of my weird recycling hobbies is to walk along farm-to-market roads, on my way to or from my friends' ranch, and pick up aluminum cans. There are pounds and pounds of just have to be careful not to jump someone's claim on that stretch of highway. Aluminum is around $0.60 a pound, last I checked. If you live in a state with can and bottle deposits, you can make minimum wage with about 40 hours of collecting (on foot) per week-so I'm told, by a freegan in NY. Good exercise too, using the free Earth Gym. I have tenure, so I don't give a rat's butt if someone thinks I'm a crazy homeless lady who lives in her truck.

Recycling plastic bottles is iffy in terms of yields - cleaning and sorting the feedstock can take more energy than creating a new feed stock for plastics and the resulting product is rarely of high enough quality that it can be used in it's initial application due to limitations in removing filler and dyes. There's an equilvalence between energy inputs and plastic feedstocks since the monomers are generally arrived at by hydrocarbon cracking. Even in a well-designed process, you're only recouping a fraction of your inputs. Metals generally fare much better since they have big energy expenditures in purification when working from primary sources anyway, which is why there's a market for metal scrap even absent recycling programs.

The wastewater from making bottled water is probably largely used in bottle and label manufacturing. The labels probably account for a bigger share than you'd think since paper making requires a lot of water. The talk of water used is somewhat misleading since wastewater is almost always returned to the environment - the real question is how much the resources the treatment process costs times the quantity adds up to.

Tap water is probably much more efficient to transport - as a rule of thumb, if it's a fluid with a reasonably low viscosity, pumping it is by far the most energy efficient way of moving it.

Treating water is generally pretty simple and not very expensive, and a lot of the steps need to be done to both sources anyway.

Overall, I can't think of any way bottled water is more efficient, but it does have it's place. Bottled water's popularity in part stems from it's heritage as a luxury good where high quality water sources were bottled for their taste. The exact traits of water from particularly tasty sources is hard to replicate, so if you're looking at it as a beverage to be enjoyed for its specific traits rather than just as a source of H2O, it's worth buying (it's probably less of an energy expenditure than a glass of wine), even more so than before since now all kinds of middle class morons drink the stuff, so the cache of paying for your water cause you just have that much money to throw around is lesser.

I live in California, which has a per-bottle deposit. My husband discovered that if you go to the aluminum recycler in our town, you can get your deposit back PLUS a per-pound premium for the aluminum. Viva la Diet Pepsi!

I occasionally buy bottled water in one-gallon containers, the kind with the convenient handle. The container lasts for at least 50 refills from the tap, and is great for bringing tasty water to the office. I cheat, though: there's a reverse osmosis unit on the other side of that tap. Makes the tastiest water, and needs only an infrequent change of filters to keep it going.

The one big advantage of bottled water is that you can have cold water away from home without ice. I'm a grad student, and that one-gallon jug fits nicely in a corner of the refrigerator in my lab. If my advising professor has noticed it, he hasn't mentioned it. (Not that we keep anything really hazardous in the lab refrigerator, but he's an uber-stickler for safety rules.)

I mostly drink 25 cents a gallon from the dispenser at the grocery a little more than half a mile away. Walking back home I can get a fairly decent arm workout walking along with two gallons doing lateral raises, lotsa curls, reverse curls etc. The tap water here is tolerable to drink, but seems to make really bad ice when frozen.

For those who want to still use bottled water, you can always sing along with Tom Lehrer.

By natural cynic (not verified) on 30 Jun 2008 #permalink

Come on down and bring your plastic bottles:

LOUISVILLE (June 11, 2008) Louisville has the best-tasting water in America and
Mayor Jerry Abramson and Louisville Water Company officials celebrated today by
handing out free bottles of Pure Tap to children and adults at Waterfront Park.
The American Water Works Association, meeting this week in Atlanta, named
Louisville's water the "Best of the Best" in its annual tasting competition

Anytime people are willing to pay fo something you can get for free, they clearly have more money than they need, so why not put a tax on bottled water to pay for health care or something.

Recycling plastic bottles is iffy in terms of yields - cleaning and sorting the feedstock can take more energy than creating a new feed stock for plastics and the resulting product is rarely of high enough quality that it can be used in it's initial application due to limitations in removing filler and dyes.

Which is why Recycle is the third of the three Rs. Though I've seen TxDOT make some pretty nifty benches and picnic tables for rest stops, with recycled plastic bottles.

"...there is a sea change in the air." Ah, man, please tell me you were just being cute.
I use a kinda funky dug well that has to be Cloroxed after every rain, and the cheapest method for me is a counter top unit that attaches to the faucet. It uses the large (10 inch) charcoal filter element that is usually used as one filter in a whole house assembly. The housing was about $50 and the filter cartridges are $5. They should last for thousands of gallons when used with municipal water sources, making it way cheaper than Britta type filters. Even with my heavy particulate and funk load, they last for several months. And if your problem with the tap water is only particulates, and not taste, the string filter cartridges are even cheaper. rb

If I want plain water, I just drink tap water. Not only does it offend me to pay inflated prices for filtered tap water in a bottle, but I invariably hate the bottled stuff. I don't like to drink things that are completely flavorless, so even the rankest, most chemically overtreated tap water tastes better to me than the bottled kind.

That said: I do drink a lot of seltzer, club soda, or mineral water -- I happen to like fizz, which to me makes all water taste better. I buy store brands to keep the cost down, and try to get it in glass instead of plastic if possible.

By Julie Stahlhut (not verified) on 30 Jun 2008 #permalink

"...there is a sea change in the air." Ah, man, please tell me you were just being cute.

That was cute. They call me Mr. Cute.

Have you looked into ceramic filters? You just scrape the scum off and boil them every now and then.

Joe, I'm coming down for a drink!

I have a filter pitcher in the fridge. It is largely a symbolic trick to get the kids to think they are drinking something as "good" as bottled water. I bought it five years ago, and the filters are supposed to be changed every three months. (Why?) I hain't changed it yet and can't tell the difference. Our tap water is very good tasting water.

Bottled water is handy for car trips, etc, and for all of its faults, it is better than bottled pop. And bottled pop (soda) is probably just as expensive to the environment as bottled water, if not more so.

Aside from that, I think this means that 300 percent of the water you drink is 'consumed.'

Well, you've got to produce the bottles, which probably involves using water somewhere in the process, and you've got to clean and sterilize all your process equipment regularly. Plus they almost certainly rinse and sterilize every bottle before filling. And it wouldn't surprise me if they use water for cooling either parts of the equipment and / or for cooling the product after a pasteurisation process.

Dune: Right, but getting the water out of the tap also uses water, yes? This varies a great deal from place to place, I'm sure, but there is often energy involved, and who knows what goes on in treatment plants, etc.

How about a quantum sea change in the epicenter of the air? Now with extra nano!
I considered a ceramic filter when the diverter valve died on the previous counter top model. (I don't know why I didn't just search for a replacement valve, duh.) My neighbors use a ceramic one with a rainwater cistern system. Pretty expensive, big countertop footprint, but what made me decide against it was my high sediment load. They do a fine job, great tasting water, and should last for ages when used with an already clean municipal source. I figured, with zero data, that the fine pore structure would quickly clog with my water. nanonano, rb

I wonder if there is a difference in recycling rates in places where there are deposits, places with no deposits, and places with partial deposits (e.g., MI where only fizzy drinks - beer and pop/soda - have deposits, but non-fizzy drinks - wine, liquor, water, juice - don't).

We have no deposits in Minnesota but I think we recycle a lot. In Mass, at least when I lived there, there were depoists on some cans/bottles, and it became standard practice to put the bottles/cans out for homeless people to come by and pick up. They were making a killing. I a low level, homeless sort of way.

who knows what goes on in treatment plants

Generally some variation on the following:

-Rough filtering to get large solids out if necessary (when pulling water from a river as opposed to groundwater).
-pH is adjusted if necessary.
-A flocculant added to scrub up the particulate.
-Filtration to get particles and flocculant out (normally through sand with some activated carbon, but there's a variety of techniques).
-Oxidizer added to break down any organic stuff that made it through.
-Pump it on out.

Other steps may be taken to deal with high content of organics (generally extra activated carbon treatment), hard water, or toxic compounds. There generally won't be much of a water waste stream - the water from backwashing the filters can normally just be sent back to the beginning of the process. If ion exchange is used, stripping the absorbed ions out to regenerate the column can generate a water waste stream that requires special treatment (normally adding an ion that forms an insoluble salt with the undesired ion that the exchanger was used to remove), but can then be sent back into the process.