State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Do you still drink bottled water?

For most of the readers of this post, the issue of bottled water might not be entirely new. Surely there has been rising awareness and alarming voice about the downsides of bottled water. However, the market is undeniably still growing. Bottled water market is growing on a global scale and, especially in the U.S., the volume is unparalleled-total 8.8 billion gallons, which is 29 gallons per person (in 2007). In the U.S., bottled water has been the second largest commercial beverage category by volume, next to carbonated soft drinks. So I summarized the problems of bottled water again and suggested some recommendations in this post.



No matter what other problems of bottled water that I will discuss later in this post are, the quality of water itself can be a sufficient reason for choosing bottled water over tap water, if the quality were really better. Everyone has a right to pursue healthiness and we all are free to buy products that we think are good for our health. But is bottled water safer, healthier, and cleaner than tap water as the consumers think?

Bottled water industry uses marketing designed to convince the public of bottled water’s purity and safety, but in reality bottled water is any better regulated, purer, and safer than most tap water. FDA’s rules completely exempt 60-70 percent of the bottled water sold in the U.S. from the agency’s bottled water standards. FDA also exempts “carbonated water,” “seltzer,” and many other waters sold in bottled from its bottled water standards, applying only vague general sanitation rules that set no specific contamination limits. FDA and state bottled water programs are seriously underfunded and FDA even says bottled water is a lower priority. Even when bottled waters are covered by FDA’s specific bottled water standards, those rules are much weaker in many ways than EPA rules that apply to municipal tap water. The environmental regulations on bottled water cannot be more restrict than those on tap water; bottled water is in essence a commercial product that people make a decision to use or not, whereas municipal tap water is provided to the whole population. Therefore, unlike the commercials and labels on bottled waters, most bottled waters are less regulated water with doubtful quality.

While most bottled water is of good quality, publicly available monitoring data are scarce. FDA and state bottled water programs are seriously underfunded and FDA even says bottled water is a lower priority. Though a bit outdated, the four-year study of the bottled water industry by NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) completed in 1999 contains the most comprehensive independent testing of more than 1000 bottles of 103 brands of water in the U.S. According to the testing, one third of the bottled waters contained significant contamination (for example, levels of chemical or bacterial contaminants exceeding those allowed under a state or industry standards) in at least one test. So what we are actually buying is often the image of pure water-towering mountains, pristine glaciers, clear springs in deep mountains, and so on. For example, one brand of “spring water” whose label pictured a lake and mountains, actually came from a well in an industrial facility’s parking lot, near a hazardous waste dump, and periodically was contaminated with industrial chemicals at levels above FDA standards. About one fourth of bottled water is bottled tap water (and by some accounts, as much as 40 percent)-sometimes with additional treatment but sometimes not. Do you think only small, unreliable companies do this repackaging? Most of that one fourth of bottled water that is repackaged tap water is by Coke and Pepsi. The industry follows the market and profit.

(2) Price

A simple comparison among bottled water, tap water, and gasoline is enough to realize how ridiculously expensive bottled water is. If 20 ounce of bottled water is sold at a price of $2, it works out to 10 cents per an ounce. Most municipal water costs less than one cent per gallon, which is 0.008 cent per an ounce. In the U.S, the current average price is around $3 per gallon, which means 2 cents per an ounce.

Wow, how “Blue Gold” water really is in bottled water industry. Aren’t we paying too much for just an artful story and pretty label?

(3) Plastic garbage

When we buy a bottle of water, what we are often buying is the bottle itself, as much as the water. Bottled water produces up to 1.5 million tons of plastic waste per year. According to Food wand Water Watch, the production of that amount of plastic requires up to 47 million gallons of oil per year and over 80 percent of the plastic bottles are simply thrown away without being recycled.

Moreover, thanks to the slow decay rate of plastic, the vast majority of all plastic water bottles we drank still exist… somewhere.

(4) Human right and environment

A big market for bottled water means less attention to public water systems, which can threaten everyone in the future. Once distanced from public systems, the consumers of bottled water have little incentive to support bond issues and other methods of upgrading municipal water treatment. Then, the quality of tap water would deteriorate more and more. However, not everyone can afford bottled water and we do not use bottled water to bathe, shower, or etc-major routes of exposure for some tap water contaminants. A major shift to bottled water could undermine funding for tap water protection, raising serious equity issues for the poor and environmental health problem to everyone. In addition, manufacture and shipping of billions of bottles causes unnecessary energy and oil consumption, leads to landfilling or incineration of bottles that would release environmental toxins.

Rising market of bottled water can possibly result in corporatization of water resource. The documentary film Thirst demonstrates the rapid worldwide privatization of municipal water supplies and the effect of these purchases on local economies. Multinational corporations are stepping in to purchase groundwater and distribution rights wherever they can. For them, water is just a selling, profitable commodity. But for us, isn’t water a basic human right-the access to safe and affordable water?

One out of six people in the world has no dependable, safe drinking water. The global economy has contrived to deny the most basic element of life to about 1 billion people, while delivering to us an array of water “varieties” from around the globe, none of which we actually need.


What can you do about this? First of all, read the facts about bottled water and face the reality (you already have done that if you read this far!). Get rid of “purity” associated with bottled water. You can also take a quiz on the issue of bottled water to test yourself!

There are several ways to switch out of bottled water. One way is to use a water bottle (stainless or plastic). If you still do not like how tap water tastes, let tap water sit for about a day or boil tap water. The taste is because of chlorine, which is added to tap water as an efficient disinfectant. However, it can be easily volatized by sitting the water for a day or boiling it. If you are still doubtful or worried about tap water quality, you can buy an inexpensive carbon filters. Again, bottled water is not any cleaner than tap water anyway! You can also consider taking Food and Water Watch’s No Bottled Water Pledge as a way to promise to yourself. I did it last year at a fair for environmental groups and it definitely helped me to keep the pledge!

Though we all should make the effort to switch out of bottled water, if you still choose to buy bottled water, you have a right-to-know and deserve assurances that it too is safe. Thus, FDA should categorize bottled water differently from other commercial products and set strict limits for contaminants of concern in bottled water. The water-bottle labels should be also required to disclose contaminants, the exact water source, treatment, and other key information, as it is required for tap water systems.

Further readings or relevant online sources:

Food and Water Watch

International Bottled Water Association

FDA restrictions on bottled water

Fact sheet on bottled water by Sierra Club (2008)

Five Reasons Not to Drink Bottled Water (2008)

Bottled Water: Better Than the Tap? (2002)

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14 years ago

[…] March 10th Ju Young posted an extremely informative entry on bottled water, “Do you still drink bottled water?” The message to cut down on bottled water is still big in advertising, environmental groups, the […]