According to the United Nations, 783 million people worldwide – nearly one out of every nine people in the world – don’t have reliable access to clean water. One of the worst countries for water access is the tiny island nation of Fiji, where, as reporter Charles Fishman told NPR in 2010, nearly 53% of the population doesn’t have a clean, safe source of drinking water.
Ironically, Fiji is also the home of the plant that bottles Fiji Water, one of the most popular brands of bottled water in the United States. Americans, unlike Fijians, have no shortage of safe water to drink – the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) holds all public sources of drinking water to strict safety standards, ensuring that the vast majority of U.S. citizens can trust the water that comes out of their tap. Even so, many Americans choose to pass over this abundant clean water source in favor of bottled waters.
Americans have many reasons to prefer bottled water to tap water. Some just don’t care for the taste of their local tap water; others like the convenience of a portable, disposable bottle. Whatever their reasons, they’re part of a large and growing trend. Statistics from the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA) show that Americans consumed 10.9 billion gallons of bottled water in 2014 – 34.2 gallons for every man, woman, and child in the country.
But all this bottled water comes with a cost – both for consumers and for the environment. Bottled water is far more expensive than tap water, and it also uses many more resources to package, ship, and dispose of when the bottles are empty. These costs have many people wondering whether it’s time to lose the ubiquitous water bottle and go back to tap water.
The Rise of Bottled Water
Bottled water has grown more and more popular over the last few decades. The IBWA estimates that in 1976, each American drank 1.6 gallons of bottled water. By 2014, they were drinking more than 21 times as much. Today, more than one out of every six bottled drinks sold in this country is a bottle of water, making bottled water nearly as popular as carbonated soft drinks.
The IBWA attributes the growing popularity of bottled water to health-consciousness. A 16-ounce bottle of Coca-Cola has 190 calories and 52 grams of sugar, while a 16-ounce bottle of water has no calories, no sugar, and no artificial sweeteners. However, that doesn’t explain why consumers are choosing bottled water over tap water, which is also sugar-free and calorie-free.
When reporters ask consumers why they prefer bottled water, they get a variety of answers:
- Taste. Many New Yorkers interviewed by ABC News in 2005 said they chose bottled water because it tasted better. One woman described her favorite bottled water as “crisp” and “natural,” while another complained that tap water “kind of tastes like sewer.” In general, consumers described the local tap water as flat and flavorless.
- Health. Other interviewees in the ABC News story believed bottled water was safer or healthier than tap water. One man said he was the only one in his family “brave enough” to drink the local tap water. Everyone else was afraid it would be full of germs. Another man said he felt “more comfortable” giving his young daughter bottled water.
- Convenience. Many users find bottled water more convenient than tap water, especially when they’re away from home. Instead of having to look for a water fountain when they get thirsty, they can just grab a bottle of water on their way out the door, or pick one up at any convenience store. Some people even keep a case of water bottles in the trunk of the car, where they’re always at the ready.
- Fashion. To many people, bottled water – especially the hip, upscale brands – is trendy and cool. Perrier, the first bottled water to become popular in the USA, built its reputation on being the beverage of choice for upwardly mobile city dwellers. Today, with dozens of different bottled waters to choose from, the bottle you carry can be a fashion statement, just like your shoes or sunglasses.
Tap Water vs. Bottled
The perceived benefits of bottled water aren’t always accurate. In most places, tap water is just as safe to drink as bottled water – and, according to blind taste tests, just as tasty as well. And while bottled water can indeed be more convenient and trendy than tap water, it’s also more expensive and wasteful. Here’s a look at how tap water and bottled water stack up on four major criteria: cost, taste, safety, and sustainability.
Bottled water isn’t just more expensive than tap water – it’s a lot more expensive. According to the IBWA, the average cost per gallon of bottled water – not counting imported or sparkling waters – was $1.21 in 2013. That doesn’t sound too bad until you look at the cost of tap water, which is $2 per every thousand gallons, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). That means that, priced by the gallon, bottled water is more than 600 times more expensive than tap water.
That’s only the average price, however. It factors in all the “bottled” water that’s delivered in jugs to office buildings or sold in large, refillable containers. However, according to the Beverage Marketing Corporation, about 65% of all bottled water sales come from single-serve plastic bottles, which cost a lot more per gallon. If you spend $1 on a 16.9-ounce bottle of water, you’re effectively paying $7.57 per gallon – 3,785 times more than you’d pay for the same amount of water from a faucet.
Spending $1 on a bottle of water every now and then isn’t that big a deal, but when you make a regular habit of it, it really adds up. If you buy just one $1 bottle of water each day, your annual spending on bottled water comes to $365. Getting the same amount of water from your tap would cost you less than $0.10.
Moreover, when you pay a price premium for bottled water, what you’re getting is often just tap water that’s been filtered or purified in some way. Both Dasani, bottled by the Coca-Cola company, and Aquafina, bottled by PepsiCo, start out with public water sources. If filtered tap water is what you want, for about $40 – less than the cost of six weeks’ worth of bottled water – you could install a simple faucet-mounted filter in your kitchen and make your own.
One of the most common reasons people give for drinking bottled water is that it tastes better than their local tap water. For instance, in a blind taste test at the offices of Buzzfeed, staffers universally agreed that all the bottled waters they tried were better than the sample of unfiltered Los Angeles tap water, which tasters described as “pool water” and “disgusting.”
However, this result is actually the exception rather than the norm. In most blind taste tests, tap water easily holds its own against bottled waters, even the pricey ones. You can see the same result in numerous cities, both in the U.S. and abroad:
- New York City. In a 2005 taste test run by the ABC News show 20/20, New York City tap water came in tied for third out of six water samples. Even users who said they didn’t like tap water had no problem with it when they didn’t know what it was. And in an earlier test, run by ABC’s Good Morning America, tap water actually trounced the competition, beating out three other waters – including the high-end imported brand Evian, which almost no one liked.
- Boston. In 2011, Boston University conducted a blind taste test to compare tap water with Vermont Pure bottled water, the brand used in the student lounge’s water cooler. Dozens of students sampled both waters and were asked to guess which was which. Of the 67 testers, only one-third of the respondents correctly identified the tap water sample. Another one-third thought it was the bottled water, and the rest said they couldn’t tell the difference.
- Washington, D.C. The Center for Nutrition, Diet and Health at the University of the District of Columbia conducted a blind taste test with 218 participants, most of whom said they preferred to drink bottled water at home. Testers tried samples of four waters – tap water, spring water, distilled water, and mineral water – and ranked them in order of preference. Tap water wasn’t the top pick, but it came in a close second, with 30% of the vote.
- Cleveland. ABC’s NewsChannel5 Cleveland invited residents to try samples of three waters: Sam’s Choice Purified bottled water from Walmart, Aquafina bottled water, and Cleveland tap water. Once again, tap water wasn’t the favorite, but it came in a close second to Aquafina. Both samples were preferred by more than two to one over the Sam’s Choice water – which most people guessed was tap water.
- San Francisco. In 2009, testers at Mother Jones magazine compared samples of their local San Francisco tap water – both filtered and unfiltered – with samples of eight different bottled waters. The unfiltered tap water came in third, beating out expensive brands such as Voss, Evian, and Fiji Water. Interestingly, the filtered tap water was far lower down the list. Tasters found it “tinny and metallic.”
- Belfast, Ireland. In a BBC News story, passersby on a Belfast street were invited to try samples of three different waters. The first, “harvested from icebergs in the Canadian Arctic,” sells for more than 26 pounds – about $40 – per bottle; the second, made from the sap of maple trees, costs the equivalent of $24; and the third came from the tap. Most tasters couldn’t correctly identify the tap water, and one described the $40 sample as “horrible.”
Even in southern California, where the Buzzfeed staff found the tap water so dreadful, many consumers think it tastes great – as long as it’s served in a fancy bottle. This YouTube clip shows an elaborate con run by stage magicians Penn and Teller in a “very trendy California restaurant,” where they created a phony “water list” of six different imported bottled waters selling for as much as $7 per bottle.
In reality, all six bottles – from “Mount Fuji” to “L’eau Du Robinet,” which is French for “tap water” – were filled with a garden hose on the patio. Restaurant patrons claimed to be able to taste distinct differences among the various brands, and consistently agreed that they were much better than tap water – which is exactly what they all were.
Many people choose bottled water because of concerns about the safety of their tap water. In many cases, these fears are perfectly reasonable.
Environmental writer Elizabeth Royte, author of the new book, “Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It,” points out in an interview with NPR that more than 10% of the community water systems in the U.S. don’t meet the standards set by the Safe Drinking Water Act. Also, about 10% of all Americans get their water from private wells, which aren’t covered under the SDWA. That means about 60 million Americans are getting tap water that may or may not be safe to drink.
However, choosing bottled water isn’t really a solution. According to the EPA, the standards for bottled water in the U.S. are exactly the same as those for tap water – and bottled water isn’t subject to the same reporting standards as tap water. Under the SDWA, municipal water systems must send users a consumer confidence report once per year telling them where their water comes from and whether it meets federal standards.
Bottled water, by contrast, is considered a food product and regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Under FDA rules, bottled water doesn’t usually have to state what source it comes from or what methods were used to treat it. A 2009 investigation by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that only “a small percentage” of all bottled water companies give their customers access to the same information about their water that municipal water suppliers are required to provide.
The FDA monitors and inspects water bottling plants, but it considers this job a “low priority” and doesn’t do it on any kind of regular schedule. Moreover, if a bottler fails to meet federal safety standards, it can still sell the water. All it has to do is put a statement on the label, such as “contains excessive bacteria” or “excessively radioactive.” In 1999, the National Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, tested 1,000 bottles of water from 103 different brands and found that for about one-third of them, at least one sample was over the allowable limits for synthetic organic chemicals, bacteria, or arsenic.
Germs are particularly likely to cause problems in bottled water. As the World Health Organization explains in its 2008 Guidelines for Drinking-Water Quality, “Some microorganisms that are normally of little or no public health significance may grow to higher levels in bottled water.” Food Safety News reports that in June 2015, 14 different brands of bottled water had to be recalled because of possible contamination with E. coli bacteria.
Fortunately, no one was sickened by this water, but problems with bottled water aren’t always caught in time. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists 14 outbreaks of acute gastrointestinal illness caused by bottled water between 1973 and 2010.
When it comes to taste and safety, bottled water isn’t necessarily worse than tap water – it just isn’t better. However, when it comes to its environmental impact, tap water is definitely far greener.
The environmental costs of bottled water include the following:
- Water Scarcity. Fiji Water isn’t the only brand that comes from a place where water resources are limited. Many American brands get their water from drought-ridden California. Arrowhead and Crystal Geyser tap natural springs in the California mountains, while Aquafina and Dasani draw on the municipal water supply in California cities, according to an investigation by The Desert Sun. In fact, The Desert Sun reports that Nestle Waters North America gets its Arrowhead water from a spring in the San Bernadino National Forest using a permit that officially expired in 1988. To add insult to injury, the companies use still more water in the manufacturing process. A representative of the Coca-Cola company admitted to Mother Jones that its plants use 1.63 liters of water for every liter of bottled beverages they produce in California – including Dasani bottled water.
- Toxic Chemicals. Most water bottles are made from a kind of plastic called polyethylene terephthalate, or PET. Manufacturing this type of plastic produces a variety of toxic chemicals into the air, including nickel, ethylbenzene, ethylene oxide, and benzene. According to a report by the Berkeley Plastics Task Force, making a 16-ounce bottle out of PET creates more than 100 times as much air and water pollution as making the bottle out of glass. Worse still, some of the toxic chemicals in the plastic can leach out over time into the water inside – particularly if the bottle is rinsed and reused.
- Energy Use. Bottled water uses energy at every stage of production: treating the water, manufacturing the bottles, filling them, shipping them, and keeping the water cold. The Pacific Institute calculated in 2007 that just producing the bottles for the bottled water Americans drink used the equivalent of more than 17 million barrels of oil. A 2009 Pacific Institute report, published in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Research Letters, concludes that across its entire life cycle, bottled water takes anywhere from 1,100 to 2,000 times as much energy to produce as tap water.
- Greenhouse Gas Emissions. Anything that uses fossil fuels also creates greenhouse gases. The Pacific Institute estimates that the manufacturing of plastic water bottles alone produced more than 2.5 million tons of carbon dioxide in 2006 – not even counting the emissions from shipping the bottles. According to the EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator, that gives water bottles a carbon footprint equal to more than half a million passenger vehicles.
- Packaging Waste. The Pacific Institute calculates that about 3.8 million tons of PET are used each year to make water bottles – and only about 31% of that PET gets recycled, according to a 2012 EPA fact sheet. The rest ends up in landfills or gets burned (releasing toxic chemicals such as dioxin in the process), or simply gets tossed aside as litter. Many discarded plastic bottles eventually make their way into the oceans, where they can prove deadly to fish, seabirds, and other creatures that swallow them.
Fitting Tap Water Into Your Lifestyle
Despite the many drawbacks of bottled water, a great number of people still feel like they have no real choice about using it. People who live in areas where the local tap water is unsafe or bad-tasting often see bottled water as the only alternative. Other people have no problem drinking tap water at home, but they find it more convenient to carry bottled water when they’re out and about, since they can’t count on having a tap to get water from everywhere they go.
Fortunately, there are ways to get around these problems. With two simple, inexpensive tools – a water filter and a reusable bottle – you can enjoy tap water that’s just as clean, tasty, and convenient to use as bottled water, and far less pricey.
Filter Your Water
If you don’t trust your local tap water, or you just don’t like the way it tastes, you can filter it to remove impurities. That’s exactly what water-bottling companies do when they bottle municipal water, but doing it yourself is a lot cheaper. The Environmental Working Group (EWG), which tested both bottled and tap water in 2008, calculates that using a simple carbon filter – either in a pitcher or attached to your tap – can give you clean, fresh-tasting water for only $0.31 per gallon. That’s about one-quarter of the average cost per gallon for bottled water, and less than 5% of what it costs to buy in single-serve bottles.
If you’re not sure such a basic filter can deal with your local water, you can find out by consulting the EWG’s National Drinking Water Database. Just enter your ZIP Code and the name of your water company to find out what contaminants have been detected in your area’s drinking water. Once you know what you need to filter out, you can click on “Get a Water Filter” to find filters that are capable of removing those impurities. Popular options range from a basic Brita water filter pitcher to the Berkey water filtration system, which is more advanced and effective in taking out impurities such as arsenic, uranium, aluminum, and fluoride.
Distill Your Water
Another option to make tasty, pure drinking water is to distill your water. Steam-distilling is the process of boiling water in a closed container to capture the steam and reliquify it in a connected container. As the steam rises, it’s collected in a separate container, and when the water in the first container has been boiled away, all that remain are the minerals and contaminants that were in the water. This is an especially attractive option for people who are predisposed to getting kidney stones.
Fill Your Own Bottle
If you drink tap water at home, but you find it more convenient to carry bottled water when you’re on the go, a reusable water bottle can give you the best of both worlds. One well-known brand is Klean Kanteen, which makes stainless-steel flasks in a variety of colors, styles, and sizes, from 12 ounces to 64 ounces. If you’re used to paying $1 a day for a bottle of water at lunchtime, then a basic $20 flask is an investment that can pay for itself in less than three weeks.
Another popular choice is a Brita bottle. Made by the same company that manufactures pitcher and faucet filters for home use, these BPA-free plastic bottles have their own filter built in, so you can make your own filtered water wherever you go. Brita bottles are even cheaper than Klean Kanteens, starting at $8 for a 20-ounce sport bottle. However, you also have to pay around $4 to replace the filter every two months or so.
A third, and a personal favorite, is Alex. Alex makes reasonably priced, insulated traveler bottles that are ideal for transporting hot and cold beverages. Two big advantages of Alex bottles: They’re super easy to clean and don’t have removable filters.
If that sounds too expensive for you, a still cheaper option is to go down to the convenience store and pick up a drink sold in a glass bottle, such as Snapple. Unlike PET bottles, glass bottles can safely be rinsed and reused without fear that they’ll break down. With this strategy, you can get a perfectly good reusable bottle for around $2 – and have the drink of your choice thrown in for free.
Water is a necessity of life. In a world where so many people have to trek miles every day to fetch their water from the nearest stream, Americans are very lucky to live in a country where clean, safe water is available at the turn of a tap. It’s just common sense to take advantage of this great privilege, instead of shelling out money for something that comes into our homes practically free.
That’s not to say that drinking bottled water is always a bad idea. For instance, when a flood or a broken pipe interrupts the local water supply, bottled water can be a literal lifesaver. Similarly, if you’re out at a concert or a ball game and you need to buy a drink, choosing a bottle of water instead of a bottle of soda is definitely the right choice for your health. However, when you have a choice between bottled water and tap water, either filtered or unfiltered, drinking from the tap is a better choice for your wallet and for the planet.
Do you prefer bottled water or tap water? Why?