State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

What is “it” about bottled water?

Recently, in a discussion about bottled water, my colleague stated, “I’ve heard this argument before – it’s the bottle, not the water, that’s the problem.  Would these people be happier if the bottle was made from recycled glass?”   As one of “these people” who are troubled by bottled water (and in spite of the disparaging remark, my colleague is one of these people, too) the discussion made me think, what is “it” really that’s so problematic about bottled water?  Is the bottle really the issue?


bottled-waterThe “these people” conversation came in response to reviewing a pretty interesting PowerPoint presentation that made a numerous claims about the environmental consequences of the plastic bottles.   A lot of the claims are familiar, but seeing some of those numbers  is pretty powerful (17,000,000 barrels of oil used in production of bottles, creating 2,500,000 tons of CO2).   I can’t speak to the accuracy of these numbers, but even if they are off by a factor of 2 or 3, it’s still a significant environment problem.  Given this, though, there is still the point my colleague made – if you take the bottle out of the equation (i.e., let’s assume you could make some type of storage vessel that had NO negative environmental impact), would people still object to bottled water?  Should they? 


My sense is yes, and I know I would, but admittedly here we get into murkier territory.  Bottled water is often said to contribute to groundwater depletion, yet upon examination this claim is complicated.  Realistically, water used for bottling is dwarfed by agricultural and industrial consumption, and in absolute numbers probably has minimal effect on most aquifers.  On the other hand, bottled water tends to be very localized, and pull groundwater from a very small area.  Even if this isn’t depleting absolute quantities of groundwater, it may have an effect on the immediate area, at least negatively affecting the ecosystem.   Another interesting objection to bottled water is that it encourages privatization of something that could much more effectively be a public good.  This point, which is articulated very clearly by Elizabeth Royte in Bottlemania wades into some complicated territory, but, I think is, very powerful. 


 A final point about bottled water is that the industry is s neither regulated, nor, ironically, transparent.  Do you really know what you’re getting when you buy a bottle of water?   You don’t.  Just this past week, it was reported that Safeway, Inc. was buying tap water from the city of Merced, California, bottling it and selling it as its Refreshe brand.


All the points referenced above are complicated and deserve much deeper examination.  Royte’s book is a great place to start and I recommend it highly .  In the meantime, though,  let all of  “us people”  keep choosing tap over bottled.  Even getting rid of that plastic bottle is reason enough. 

Science for the Planet: In these short video explainers, discover how scientists and scholars across the Columbia Climate School are working to understand the effects of climate change and help solve the crisis.
Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Jennifer Vettel
Jennifer Vettel
14 years ago

One of the most powerful arguments against bottled water is the carbon issue, since I believe about 80% of water bottles are sent to landfills rather than appropriate recycling facilities. However, while this debate will not be solved tomorrow, there is a very interesting company that exists that makes it seem that perhaps bottled water can be more environmentally friendly.

NIKA Water ( is an eco-friently bottled water company that has taken many steps to make it sustainable and to help others in need. They donate all their profits to NGOs that alleviate poverty and fund clean water projects around the globe. While that alone makes it a more people friendly company, they have also been cetified as a Carbon Neutral company by Carbon Fund. With their innovative recycling program, they make sure for every bottle they use, a similar bottle is recycled and reused.

While this does not solve all the issues pertaining to bottled water, it is interesting to see a bottled water company that realizes its environmental impact and is doing something new and innovative to try to make a difference. If we could get more bottled water companies to follow suit, it could make a significant difference in the oil used and carbon emmited by the production of bottled water. We have to choose the fights we can win, and if we can find a way to minimize the number of bottles wasted, causing more carbon emissions and oil use, perhaps next we can look at the overdrawing of water or the need for regulation of bottled water campanies.

14 years ago


As a supporter of bottled water, I appreciate you taking the time to look past the standard arguments against the product and digging a bit deeper before forming your conclusions. You are indeed right about the bottled water industry being a minimal user of groundwater. The bottled water industry, is, however, regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as a food product. The issue of the water at Safeway is no different from many bottlers – it’s not as if someone turned on the tap in Merced and filled up bottles and sold them to Safeway. There’s a number of other processes that go into a bottle of water (Aqufina and Dasani both come from municipal sources) before it is sold.

Again, despite your opinions against bottled water, it was nice to see more thought put into the claims against it before you arrived at your conclusion. has a slideshow in response to the above PowerPoint.

Tom Lauria
14 years ago

Those of us working in bottled water have trouble understanding why our products are singularly criticized. The grocery stores have thousands of plastic containers. They are found in every aisle. Meanwhile, good, sufficient hydration (without the caffeine, sugar, sweeteners,chemicals and colorings)makes bottled water a smart and healthy choice. We agree it is important to recycle all of the bottles mentioned above, if one wants to be effective. Many bottled water companies have light-weighted their packaging, bought hybrid trucks, so this article really isn’t about making a difference. It is, as Jennifer Vettel, “choosing a fight we can win.” Don’t look at bottled water! In business since the 1500s in Europe and 1820 in the U.S., water bottlers are good stewards of natural resources and have been careful about over-withdrawals for almost two centuries in the U.S. Studies show if people can’t get bottled water, they most often buy sweetened soft drinks. What are you doing to fight the obesity epidemic. We’re helping — we provide people with refreshing bottled water.

14 years ago

Water bottlers, be troubled no more. All plastic containers, including soda-sugar drinks, should include deposits in the purchase price. As was stated earlier, the Container Recycling Institute shows that over 76% of of all PET containers are not recycled [], including shampoo bottles, carbonated soft drinks, and yes, bottled water. So resource drains (e.g., petrol) plastic waste problems (see: Great Pacific Waste Dump), carbon emissions from PET production/transportation are in effect due to poor recycling rates.

What probably irks many people about bottled water, and I’m one, is that 1) people DO NOT recycle the bottles and; 2) the value added that I get from caffeine and sugar beverages is strong in comparison to the weak value added of filtration that I get from most bottled water. I can filter my own water, or amazingly, drink unpurified tap water and pay virtually nothing for it.

I’m glad that Nestle, Coca-Cola, etc. are so concerned about American obesity, so bully for them. Yet I won’t pay for bottled water even if it’s $.25/gallon when I can get water from the tap for $.002/gallon.

Drink all the bottled water you want, don’t ban it, actually get people to recycle by supporting ALL bottle deposit bills (other plastics, too), but don’t make it seem like an uncomplicated issue. The world is not black and white.

Meaghan Daly
Meaghan Daly
14 years ago

This is a good conversation on an important issue. One consideration I would like to add is the environmental impact of transporting bottled water.

Tom mentions light weight packaging and hybrid trucks…both good ideas – but they don’t get around the fact that water is inherently a heavy substance. At 8.3 pounds per gallon, it’s an energy intensive endeavor to get water from place to place. And there’s no avoiding that – it’s simple physics.

Bottled water travels, on average, 150 miles – much further than tap water. So, even if there are successful efforts to increase eco-friendly packaging and recycling rates, I don’t believe it is responsible to encourage the consumption of bottled water unnecessarily.

(Additionally, a peer reviewed report published in ScienceNOW, called “Drink Up, Energy Hogs” (Grom, 2009) highlights the fact that bottled water consumes between 1,100 and 2,000 times more energy than tap water! In my opinion, this is a factor too large to ignore.)

Grant Goodrich
Grant Goodrich
14 years ago

I think it’s critically important that we address the water-centric issues in the bottled water debate as well as the “bottle problem.” Bottled water represents a diversion of water from one watershed, where it is bottled, to the watershed where it is consumed and the resulting wastewater re-enters the hydrologic cycle. From a water management perspective, these diversions can be a concern to watershed managers during times of scarcity. These diversions apply not only to water bottlers, but to the entire bottling industry which is in some way dependent on water as an ingredient in its product.

I agree with Tom Lauria; the water bottling industry is typically very cognizant of concerns of over-withdrawals, and carefully manages their resource. The volumes of water diverted for bottling are, as Dan Stellar notes, small compared to other uses.

But two examples illustrate the water management issues facing policymakers and the bottling industry. First, during the 2007 drought in the American Southeast, bottling industry giants Coca-Cola and Pepsi continued bottling operations at their Atlanta-area facilities. Second, the International Joint Commission on the Great Lakes reported in 2000 that the Great Lakes watershed imports 14 times more bottled water than it exports. When we compare these two facts side-by-side, one can’t help but wonder if we don’t need to rethink the hydrologic impacts of bottling on the source watershed, and re-examine national and state policies on watershed diversions.

14 years ago

This article raises a very good point, and one that I think Tom Lauria emphasizes: it isn’t entirely the bottle, but the culture behind the bottle.

There is nothing inherently wrong with a plastic bottle. As Tom points out, plastic packaging is used in all manner of products. But given that only 20% of these water bottles are recycled (correct me if I’m wrong on that statistic), we’ve got to change either our over dependency on bottled water or our approach to recycling.

Of course, the simple solution would be to filter your own tap water, but I realize that is not always an option for many people.

Samantha Tress
14 years ago

The bottled water industry’s largest contribution to environmental degradation seems to be the bottle, and not the water. As Dan said, the amount of water that the bottled water industry mines is negligible compared to the amount that agriculture uses. So in order to make the biggest impact, we should be focusing many of our efforts on making the agricultural industry more efficient. But we should still cut back drastically on bottled water- not because of the water but because of the bottle.

According to a 2008 report by Beverage Digest, bottled water is now the second most popular consumed beverage in the United States. Carbonated soft drinks are in the number one spot, and make up more than twice the market share of bottled water. However, the amount of soft drinks consumed in the past couple years has been slowly decreasing, while bottled water sales have doubled in the last ten years. (In slots 3, 4 and 5, is beer, milk and coffee, respectively.)

I disagree with Tom Lauria when he says above “Don’t look at bottled water!” and implies that because other items use plastic packaging, too, the bottled water industry is off the hook. These stats show that bottled water consumption is quickly increasing, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it overtook soft drinks in the next couple years, partly due to all the advertising for the health benefits of drinking water. When they become number one, they will certainly use more plastic bottles than other types of beverages (if they don’t already since carbonated soft drinks are often in cans, too). I think this means that, similar to targeting agriculture for water-use reduction first, we need to target bottled water for plastic waste reduction first, i.e. drinking less of it.

14 years ago

Problems with the bottled water industry, in short:
– Over mining
– Desertification
– Exploitation of communities
– Over pricing… (more than oil drop for drop)
– Plastic waste
– Use of municipal systems, which are healthy and clean
– Untruthful marketing

What you can do about it:

Mark Seaman
Mark Seaman
14 years ago

Echoing Meaghan’s point, the transportation costs seem immense. Water comes to New York from all around the world — Fiji, Croatia, Finland. Is this necessary?

I think a cultural shift is required on this issue, and I hope it is beginning. At the highest levels, there are discussions such as this one, which were much rarer a few years ago. There are also practical steps taken by agencies such as New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Agency, which banned bottled water last year. We need Hollywood and the media to get in on the act so that it becomes passe to drink bottled water.

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x