Tap Water vs. Bottled Water and the Environment

Bottled water has been appearing more frequently in the news recently, especially now that cities like San Francisco and Vancouver have banned its use at government functions and such. It’s somewhat surprising that it’s taken this long for people to realize the environmental damage bottled-water consumption does—or perhaps people simply didn’t (don’t?) care, since the harms should be relatively apparent.

One obvious harm is that of water usage. To make the plastic, it takes at least twice the final amount of water produced (so, for instance, three liters of fresh water are needed to produce one liter of bottled water). That probably adds little to overall fresh-water usage, but the effect on local water sources can be significant (especially depleting groundwater levels and decreasing the downstream water supply).

Furthermore, the effects on pollution, including greenhouse gas emissions, are decidedly harmful. Plastic is made from oil; an estimated 2.5 million tons of carbon dioxide (that is, about 0.1% of U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions) were generated in 2006 for the production of plastic for bottled water. Then, too, a significant amount fossil fuels and more carbon dioxide is generated in transporting the bottles to the water source, and then transporting the bottled water to stores—especially if the water is obtained overseas. And of course, this further increases our country’s demand for fossil fuels.

Finally, bottled water produces an incredible amount of solid waste. According to one estimate, nearly 90% of bottles are not recycled. And plastic does not biodegrade.

However, there are several reasons why people prefer bottled water to tap water. Though there is little or no evidence for most of these, the effect is strong enough that even though tap water is essentially free, people will pay prices for bottled water that at times can rival the price of an equivalent amount of gasoline.

One perception is that bottled water is more healthful than tap water. While this may be true in some developing countries, in countries such as the United States, the municipal water supply is quite safe. In fact, since municipal water supplies tend to be more closely regulated than bottled water, it may be safer to drink tap water. There are no data showing a superior health benefit or decreased health risk from drinking bottled water.

Another perception is that bottled water (or a specific brand of bottled water) tastes better than the alternative. This appears to be more closely related to advertising and brand recognition than actual taste; in general, blind taste tests have not demonstrated the superiority of bottled water (see, for instance, an ABC News story about an [unscientific] taste test). In a recent study, toddlers found food packaged in McDonald’s packaging to taste better than identical, unbranded food; it should come as no surprise that adults are similarly susceptible to branding.

Finally, bottled water is often more convenient than tap water. Especially when on the go, it is often easier to grab a bottle of pre-bottled water than using tap-water alternatives.

What to do?

There are powerful environmental and personal economic reasons to eschew bottled water. But how can one leave it behind, without losing the (possible) advantages of bottled water?

For drinking water at home, many purchase a home water filtration system (such as Brita or Pur). Around one-quarter of bottled water in the United States (including Coca-Cola’s Dasani and Pepsi’s Aquafina brands) is just derived from municipal water supplies (sometimes with further purification steps), so home water purification is ultimately not much different. Of course, the water supply in the United States is quite safe and there’s no inherent need to further purify water for most people.

For when you’re on the move, the best thing to do is to purchase a reusable water bottle. (In general, it’s not safe to reuse bottled-water bottles, since chemicals can leach out of the plastic over time.) There is quite an array of options; Laura Moser recently reviewed a number of them in Slate.

Though it ranked low on her list, my personal choice has been a Nalgene bottle. I initially considered StopCorporateAbuses’s attractive blue “Think Outside the Bottle” water bottles. However, I don’t believe they are dishwasher-safe, and there are rather prominent anti-corporation messages on the bottles—in my opinion, most people would make the switch due to environmental, not corporate, concerns, and adding unrelated activism would be counterproductive. I ultimately selected Nalgene’s “Refill Not Landfill” bottle—it’s a nice slogan, and not overwhelming. It’s only $10.00, dishwasher-safe, and apparently the entire proceeds are donated to NativeEnergy, so it’s definitely one to consider.

For those who wish to become more environmentally friendly or to fight global warming, eliminating bottled-water use is a relatively easy way to shrink one’s “carbon footprint” and other damage to the environment.

For more information, you may wish to see  “How Do You Take Your Water?” from the New York Times and “The Snob Appeal of Tap Water” from Slate.

23 thoughts on “Tap Water vs. Bottled Water and the Environment

  1. We definitely need to be more responsible about our bottled water. I have a filter at home which I use, but I also pick up bottled water when I’m out and I get thirsty- it’s the healthiest option, and I get dehydrated quickly. I drink Aquafina usually- it doesn’t bother me that it’s original municipal water- like you said, we have some pretty clean water to start with:) Do you know if any recycling initiatives are being put into place to help combat this issue? That’s something we really need to work on- and it’s not just bottled water- there is a lot of recyclable items that go into landfills unfortunately.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Loreli! Using filtered instead of bottled water at home is a great step. And if you decide to take things further, buying a reusable water bottle to carry with you is actually not too inconvenient. What I do is in the morning, before I leave, I fill the bottle up completely with ice. Then I fill it up with as much cold water as it will carry. It then stays nice and cold for quite a while! I refill it periodically throughout the day, whenever I’m by a water fountain. It’s basically the same water as Aquafina, but it’s free, and it doesn’t use up precious environmental resources to construct bottles and transport the water from distant sources. Just something to think about!

    Regarding recycling initiatives: there may be local initiatives, but I’m not aware of any nationwide initiatives. What sort of program do you have in mind? Perhaps a small cash incentive for recycling, as some states currently do?

  3. Japan and Singapore are really the only 2 ‘safe’ countries in Asia when it comes to tap water (and I live in Singapore).

    Whenever we travel around Asia, we always buy bottled water (at scandalous prices) since there is not a lot of choice.

    Thanks for the insights about the impact of plastic bottled water – it really is a problem. And how can they get away with such over-charging?

    Surely the best solution is to provide filtration systems at a city- or national level – but I can imagine there are a lot of vested interests that would discourage this. I’d be interested in cost analysis for this, especially considering the health costs of not doing so.

    You may be interested in my post Innovations from the most water-starved continent (I am originally from Australia). There is a piece towards the end about NEWater, Singapore’s recycling system.

  4. You’re welcome! I should clarify that my post is in general, targeted to American readers and those living in countries with safe municipal water supplies.

    As for overcharging, I suppose they can do it because people are willing to pay for it! In certain parts of Asia, I imagine the scarcity and demand for bottled water drive up the price. Here in the U.S., there are free alternatives to bottled water, which makes the purchase of water quite puzzling. A combination of many psychological factors and marketing probably play roles—there is in general a craze in the U.S. towards “natural”, “pure” products, even though they may not be any safer (or often are less sage) than alternatives.

  5. I realize you’re mocking the bottled water fad! But for those who may miss it, I should point out that tap water can be carried in a bottle just as easily as “bottled” water — and when you run out, you can easily refill it.

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