The Trouble with Bottled Water

Plastic Bottlesby Sarah at ProgressiveKid

More than half of all Americans drink bottled water and about one-third of the population drinks it regularly (according to the NRDC). So Americans are thirsty. Why is this a problem?

1. What’s in the Bottles

One problem has to do with what’s in the bottles themselves. The Earth Policy Institute reports that 1.5 million barrels of oil per year, which is enough to fuel 100,000 cars for that same year, are required to satisfy Americans’ demand for bottled water. That’s because PET, or polyethylene terephthalate, the plastic used in water bottles, is derived from crude oil. And, according to the Earth Policy Institute article “Bottled Water: Pouring Resources Down the Drain,” by Emily Arnold and Janet Larsen, this oil is being used to make some 2.7 million tons of plastic each year for bottling water around the globe.

2. What the Bottles Are in

Unfortunately, most of these bottles, four of every five, end up in landfills, according to Pat Franklin, executive director of the Container Recycling Institute, a Washington group that promotes recycling. Jared Blumenfeld and Susan Leal in their essay “The real cost of bottled water” published in the San Francisco Chronicle report that in the state of California alone more than 1 billion plastic water bottles end up in the trash each year.

The National Association for PET Container Resources in Sonoma, California, puts the national figure at 3.62 billion plastic bottles for 2004. According to the Container Recycling Institute, 86 percent of plastic water bottles used in the United States become garbage or litter.

Why is the presence of so many bottles in landfills a problem?

  • Water bottles buried in landfills can take up to 1,000 years to biodegrade.
  • The bottles leak toxic additives, such as phthalates, into the groundwater.
  • Incinerating used bottles produces toxic byproducts such as chlorine gas and ash containing heavy metals.

3. Where the Bottles Are

Arnold and Larsen also point out two major problems with the location of water bottling plants:

  • First, bottled water must be transported long distances, which involves burning massive quantities of fossil fuels. They explain that almost one-fourth of all bottled water must cross national borders to reach consumers.
  • Second, the communities where water is extracted suffer a disproportionate loss to their own water supplies. The writers point to water shortages in Texas and the Great Lakes region near bottling plants.

4. What’s in the Water

The Natural Resources Defense Council conducted a four-year study of the bottled water industry, including its bacterial and chemical contamination problems. They reviewed available information on bottled water and its sources, Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations of bottled water, and government and academic bottled water testing results. The NRDC also commissioned independent lab testing of more than 1,000 bottles of 103 types of bottled water from many parts of the country.

In its report, the NRDC reveals that the FDA’s rules exempt 60 to 70 percent of the bottled water sold in the United States from the agency’s bottled water standards “because FDA says its rules do not apply to water packaged and sold within the same state.” Because almost 40 states say they do regulate such waters even though they have few resources or policies to do so, this is a significant omission. And, say the report writers, “Even when bottled waters are covered by FDA’s specific bottled water standards, those rules are weaker in many ways than EPA rules that apply to big city tap water.”

The NRDC study generated alarming results: “Approximately one third of the tested waters (34 of 103 waters, or 33 percent) violated an enforceable state standard or exceeded microbiological-purity guidelines, or both, in at least one sample.”

5. What the Bottled Water Costs

There are so many bottled water suppliers that the product must at least be inexpensive, right? Well, no. Arnold and Larsen report that “The global consumption of bottled water reached 154 billion liters (41 billion gallons) in 2004, up 57 percent from the 98 billion liters consumed five years earlier.” But increased demand is only driving up the price. According to the NRDC, consumers spend from 240 to over 10,000 times more per gallon for bottled water than they typically do for tap water.

And clearly, the price of bottled water is much greater than what can be reflected in dollars and cents.


The good news is that there are alternatives. What’s the best way to hydrate? (1) Stop buying water in plastic bottles, (2) test your tap water or obtain testing results, (3) filter it if necessary, and (4) carry it in a rugged, long-lasting Swiss-made aluminum bottle (tested to be 100% leach free with an interior coated in a water-based resin) or a less-rugged stainless steel bottle. You’ll look cooler and you’ll feel better about what you’re drinking.

Image by lisabatty on Flickr, Creative Commons license.

©2007 ProgressiveKid. May not be reprinted or redisplayed without permission.


3 Responses

  1. […] filtered tap water instead of bottled water. See The Trouble with Bottled Water for all the reasons to break the bottled water habit. Also visit the New American Dream site for […]

  2. […] bank as well as the planet. It’s a win-win!Drink filtered tap water instead of bottled water. See The Trouble with Bottled Water for all the reasons to break the bottled water habit. Also visit the New American Dream site for […]

  3. […] filtered tap water instead of bottled water. See The Trouble with Bottled Water for all the reasons to break the bottled water habit. Also visit the New American Dream site for […]

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