Bottled Water’s Impact on Your Money, Health, and the Environment

Many people buy bottled water because they believe it is better for them or safer than tap water. The truth is that bottled water has no health benefits over tap water, and tastes no different than what comes out of the faucet. By switching to tap water, consumers can save money and be green at the same time.

Why the Bottled Water Business Fears the Reusable Bottle Trend

For more than three decades, the bottled water industry enjoyed year on year growth. Now sales are starting to drop as people consider the environmental impact and turn back to reusable water bottles.

Around 2.7 million tonnes of plastic is used to bottle water around the world every year. Recycling rates are poor, with most of the plastic from the single use water bottles ending up in either landfill or the environment, where they can take hundreds of years to break down.

As people consider the environmental cost of the plastic that is used to bottle water, and the fossil fuels that are burned transporting the water around the world, an increasing number are looking for greener alternatives including reusable water bottles.

Money Spent on Bottled Water

Bottled water is a $100 billion a year industry. The U.S. is the leading consumer of bottled water, buying $15 million worth of bottled water every year. According to “Message in a Bottle” by Charles Fishman, bottled water can cost 10,000 times more than tap water–about $10 per gallon for high-end brands. Americans spend more a year on bottled water than on iPods® or movie tickets.

Trillions of dollars have been spent in the developed world to make tap water safe, yet people in these countries are the consumers of bottled water. In the meantime, over a billion people worldwide have no access to clean drinking water.

People who are concerned that their tap water is not as clean as bottled can buy a water pitcher with a filter or install a filter on their faucets. Filtering 16 ounces of tap water costs pennies compared with about a dollar to buy the same amount of bottled water.

No Health Benefits to Bottled Water

In many developing countries, the drinking water is contaminated by bacteria and chemicals and unfit for human consumption. In the developed world, however, research shows bottled water is no healthier or safer than tap water. In fact, tap water quality is actually more closely monitored in many places than is the quality of bottled water.

Recent tests comparing New York City tap water to five national brands of bottled water found virtually no difference in the bacteria content of each. And blind tastes tests consistently show that consumers actually like the taste of tap water as much as, or more than, bottled water.

Surprisingly, about 40 percent of bottled water is actually tap water. Despite pictures of mountains and streams on their labels, popular bottled water brands Aquafina® and Dasani ® (which comprise about 25 percent of the bottled water market in the U.S.) are in reality processed tap water. Additionally, the minerals added to some bottled waters have no known health benefits.

Health Risks

Even in countries where the public drinking water source is safe, the social phenomenon persists of people continuing to spend up to 1000 times more for bottled water, instead of using tap water. Bottled water has long been used in places where public water supplies were inadequate or unhealthy, so it is ironic to realize that plastic bottles carry their own health risks. The chemical bisphenol A ( BPA) which acts like a synthetic hormone, has recently been found in water stored in plastic bottles and has been linked to cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

As awareness grows that not all bottled water is healthy, higher standards for drinking water will become more significant for responsible consumers. International standards being developed by the World Health Organization are guidelines only, and there is as yet no universally accepted certification scheme for bottled drinking water.

Studies Show That Tap Water Is As Good Or Better Than Bottled Water

Studies conducted in the U.S. show that tap water is often cleaner and safer than bottled water. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) conducted a study evaluating contaminants in bottled water. They tested 103 brands of bottled water and found that one-third contained contaminants, and one even exceeded allowable limits (“Bottled Water: Pure Drink or Pure Hype?” NRDC March 1999.).

Bottled Water Vs Tap Water in a Taste Test

A number of taste tests, including one by the largest consumer organization in Australia, Choice, found not only is there no good reason to believe bottled water is any healthier than tap water, but that a taste panel couldn’t tell the difference between two leading brands of bottled water and tap water.

The Choice taste test was conducted in July 2005, and took the two most popular bottled water brands at the time, Mount Franklin and Frantelle – which combined supplied nearly a third of the bottled water sold in Australia – and compared them with Sydney tap water.

As Choice explains in their Bottled Water Report “A Triumph”, the water was tasted at room temperature and the tap water was stored overnight in empty Mount Franklin and Frantelle bottles.

They asked 21 tasters to pick the odd one out of the three samples. The testers were unable to distinguish between either of the two brands of bottled water, and Sydney tap water.

The Scary Truth About Bottled Water

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for ensuring that many products people purchase for consumption are safe. However, companies who package and sell their bottled water within the same state, which constitutes 60-70 percent of all bottled water consumed in the U.S., are exempt from inspection by the FDA. Those that are overseen by the FDA are actually not tested as stringently as city tap water is – bottled water is not required to be disinfected, filtered or tested for contaminants such as viruses. Bottled water is tested for bacteria once per week and synthetic chemicals once per year, in contrast to tap water which is tested weekly and quarterly for bacteria and chemicals, respectively. Even fecal traces are allowable in bottled water, provided they’re not too high (“Bottled Water: Pure Drink or Pure Hype?” NRDC March 1999.).

Labeling of bottled water is meant to inspire images of crisp clean flowing mountain spring water, bottled directly and sold straight to the buyer. Surprisingly, anywhere from 25-40 percent of bottled water sold in the U.S. is simply tap water that has been put in a bottle, labeled attractively, and had a price tag attached. It was discovered that in one case “pure glacier water” was indeed bottled public city water, and one labeled “spring water” actually came from a source near an industrial parking lot and hazardous waste site!

Bottled Water’s Impact on the Environment

Earth Policy Institute data show Americans buy 28 billion water bottles a year, 86 percent of which end up in landfills. These bottles take a thousand years to degrade. In addition, huge amounts of fossil fuels are used in producing and transporting bottled water. Finally, water shortages are not uncommon in the locales where water is collected for bottling.

Consumers can save money and help the environment by filling a reusable plastic or aluminum bottle with water from the faucet. Avoid plastic bottles that contain high density polyethylene (BPA), a potentially harmful chemical that may leach into the water. Bottles with the recycling symbol #7 on the bottom contain BPA.

In spite of what many people believe, bottled water doesn’t taste any better or offer substantial health benefits over tap water. Bottled water also contributes unnecessary strain on the environment and on our wallets. Save money, stay healthy, and be green by drinking tap water.

Environmental Impacts

Plastic bottles are made from non-renewable oil based chemicals, and most are not being recycled and instead are filling up landfills around the world. A huge amount of plastic is found in the world’s oceans, taking hundreds of years to decompose and harming birds and fish in the meantime.

The energy required to produce the plastic, process the water, seal the bottle and finally refrigerate it takes about 2000 times more energy than to produce clean tap water. Adding to the carbon footprint is the fact that a quarter of the world’s production of bottled water is consumed outside the country of origin, with transportation contributing to pollution and global warming.

Options Available When Reducing Dependence on Plastic Bottles

Plastics, especially those containing polycarbonate or polyethylene terephthalate (PET), have become controversial for use as water bottles. Though the health dangers are not conclusive, many agree that the environmental impact is too high to continue using both disposable and reusable plastic bottles. There are many choices available to replace these and three options for what to do with the old bottle.

Reduce

Everyone has different reasons for using disposable or reusable bottles. Though it may not be easy, everyone can reduce their dependence on these plastics. One way is to replace the plastic reusable bottles with metal bottles, which cost more but have a longer lifespan. Another is to encourage local recreation leagues to provide alternatives, such as water fountains, for their players and spectators.

Some schools provide plastic bottles with their logo on the side to encourage students to drink more water during the day; request that they provide an option for metal as well or instead. Also, remember to carry the reusable bottle so that a disposable bottle is not purchased later in the day.

Recycle

Most communities provide some form of recycling for plastics. If recycling bins are not available when needed one, take the bottle home to recycle instead of tossing it in the trash. When replacing reusable bottles look on the container for the recycle number and recycle it properly. Most areas accept plastics with the recycling numbers 1, 2 and 5.

If the bottle does not have a recycling number on it then either check with the local recycling center or compare the container to these common features:

  1. (PET) commonly used for bottled water and soft drinks
  2. Milk, detergent and oil bottles
  3. (PVC) used to create food wrap and vegetable oil bottles
  4. Plastic bags and shrink wrap
  5. Refrigerator containers, bottle caps and some food wrap
  6. Disposable utensils and meat packaging
  7. Plastics include most baby bottles, some five-gallon water jugs and many sports bottles and cannot be recycled

Reuse

If a reusable bottle cannot be recycled and is no longer being used for transporting drinks, consider giving it a new purpose instead of adding it to a landfill. The first step is to decorate it, or use it as is if it is already a nice color or has a decal, such as a school logo. Then, try one of these ideas:

  • Use the bottle to hold pencils, pens or other small desktop items.
  • Punch holes in the bottles and use string or wire to create a mobile or wind chime.
  • Use it to hold kitchen utensils. A weight might be needed in the bottom to keep it from tipping.
  • Fill it with water, glitter, bobbles, rocks and beads to create a wonder bottle for a small child. Glue or fasten the lid in place to avoid accidental opening. This works best with a clear bottle.

Logical Alternatives

Buy a reusable water bottle, preferably of eco-friendly stainless steel and drink tap water, filtered with a home filtration system if necessary. Be aware of the quality of your local water supply and become an activist for its improvement. Work to protect rivers, streams and wetlands to ensure that public water supplies are of good quality and a fair price.

Support movements to reduce bottled water consumption by providing more public drinking fountains as in London, where in October 2009, water stations were being installed at bus stations and museums. Customers can fill their own bottles for around 30 cents with proceeds going to the UK charity Waste Watch. There will surely come a time when plastic bottles, like plastic supermarket bags will be banned. Now is the time to reverse the alarming world-wide trend of increased consumption of environmentally unfriendly products. Let’s stop buying bottled water. It’s hurting our planet.

Healthier, Attractive Water Bottle Alternatives

There are many reasons to drink water throughout your day. Whether sitting at your desk or working out at the gym, we should be drinking enough water to keep hydrated – but again, it doesn’t have to be imported, distilled or mineral water.

If an attractive container is what motivates you to drink your eight glasses a day, we’d recommend the following way of staying stylish while keeping hydrated:

  • Thermos
  • Stainless steel bottles
  • BPA-free, portable water filter bottles

The thermos has the advantages of being reusable and ideal for travel. It’s thermal qualities can sustain your drink’s hot or cold temperature longer.

The Modern, Reusable Stainless Steel Canteen

The trendy re-usable stainless steel bottles are the chic answer to those who consider a water bottle a fashion accessory. Available in a wide array of colors and patterns, they often come with keychain hooks for dangling off backpacks, or tucking into purses. Stainless steel is lightweight, but will not provide any thermal protection for your drink.

If you are truly paranoid about your drinking water, or if you are going camping in an area with non-potable water, another option is the portable water filter. It’s not advisable to use the squeezable BPA-laden Brita water bottles as there is also the added waste of the disposable filter.

Mountain Equipment Co-op’s MSR MiniWorks™ EX Water Filter is effective against protozoa and 0.2 micron or larger bacteria. The MSR Miniworks™ has the advantage of reducing concentrations of iodine and chlorine.

Eight Glasses of Tap Water is the Ecological Choice

While there are concerns about the quality of drinking water , the overall take is that it’s still safer – and less expensive – to pour yourself a container full of tap water and take it with you, than to buy a bottle when on the run.