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Is bottled water really that much different than tap water?

Posted at 8:13 AM, Apr 05, 2022

How much have you thought about bottled water?

It’s a simple product — probably an afterthought in the fridge at the convenience store, in your fridge at home, or stockpiled in your trunk in case you get stuck on the side of the road.

But where did it come from? How did that water get from wherever it was to the inside of the bottle? And why are we paying several dollars at a time for something that comes at a fraction of the cost straight from the tap?

The answers to those questions reveal the true impact of bottled water, both environmentally and ethically, and that impact is worth considering the next time you buy a bottle.

It's important to note tap water is not a universal luxury. CDC estimates suggest that more than 800 million people around the world don’t have safe drinking water, and even in the United States, cities have had to rely on bottled alternatives to tap water for weeks, months or even years at a time.

Cities like Jackson, Mississippi, and Newark, New Jersey, as well as both Flint and Benton Harbor in Michigan, have needed to rely on bottled water in recent years due to aging infrastructure or toxic chemicals in their water supply.

But if you’re just going to the supermarket and buying a water bottle, you’re getting a product that is far more expensive than what you can get via tap.

"When people are thirsty, it's a really appealing drink — that bottle of water that you buy in a cold case for $1.29," author Charles Fishman said. "It's cheap in terms of the fact that you can slide two dollar bills or six quarters on the counter and you're done. You could fill that bottle of water every day for 3,500 days, nine years from your tap before the tap water cost $1.29."

Fishman is a contributing editor for the business magazine Fast Company and wrote a book about the economics of bottled water called “The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water.”

"It's not better than tap water," Fishman said. "It's not cleaner than tap water. In fact, tap water is much more tightly regulated than bottled water by state, local, the federal government."

That bottle also has more costs than just what you pay for it at the store. Bottled water has a huge environmental impact.

The water comes from a source — likely a lake, spring, or underground aquifer. On average, the manufacturer will have to use three liters of water just to produce one liter — roughly 34 fluid ounces — of water that can be bottled.

At the plant that makes plastic bottles for the water, they’ll have to use roughly 2,000 times the energy needed to produce tap water. Much of America’s plastic is made with energy from burned oil. Considering that bottled water is one of the most popular drinks in the U.S. and consumers drink tens of billions of bottles each year, we’re talking about tens of billions of gallons of oil used to just make water bottles each year.

The bottle may have to go hundreds or thousands of miles on planes, trucks, or ships to get to your local store, with brands like Evian and Fiji shipping their water from France and Fiji, respectively.

That bottle also usually just gets used once, with most of them not getting recycled after use. Michael O’Heaney, executive director at the environmental nonprofit the Story of Stuff Project, says it can get even more costly when you factor in how it got made.

"Plastics fundamentally are products derived from oil and gas," O'Heaney said. "So part of the reason you see this huge growth in single-use plastics is less about demand is less about consumers saying, 'I really want more single-use plastics in my life,' and more about the sort of glut of hydrocarbons, and most specifically, the glut of fracked natural gas available in the United States."

Put it all together, and your water has been through a lot before you drink it.

Peter Gleick is the co-Founder and president emeritus of the Pacific Institute, an environmental nonprofit. He also wrote “Bottled and Sold,” a book about why we consume so much bottled water.

"Perhaps the biggest environmental challenge associated with bottled water, of course, is the plastics associated with the whole process, the making of the plastic bottle, which requires a huge amount of energy," Gleick said. "Fossil fuel energy plastics come from fossil fuels. Then, we buy the bottle after it's been moved to wherever we're picking it up, and there's an energy cost associated with that as well."

Gleick notes that despite people's suspicions about tap water, bottled water generally isn’t any safer than tap water.

"We have federal laws, the federal standard, the Safe Drinking Water Act, that defines standards for our tap water that protect our tap water to a very high degree that require that water agencies test tap water on a constant basis," Gleick said. "I wouldn't argue that tap water is safer necessarily than bottled water, but it's certainly not any less safe than bottled water, which also has standards to bring it up to about the standard that our tap water has to meet."

Then, there's the labeling of it all.

Two of the largest water bottle brands — the Coca-Cola-owned Dasani and the PepsiCo-owned Aquafina — bottle purified water using what’s called “reverse osmosis filtration.”

That’s one way of saying that they literally just use the same source as tap water.

The advocacy group Food and Water Watch estimates nearly two-thirds of bottled water sold in the United States comes from the same source as municipal tap water.

"The vast majority of bottled water, the water that people buy in the store and bring home or buy on the go, is just purified tap water, is municipal water that the companies buy typically from municipalities," O'Heaney said. "There's a variety of processes they use and then sell back to consumers in plastic packaging."

That’s gotten some folks really upset, and it’s led to efforts to block companies from taking water from the tap supply and bottling it for sale.

Legislation in Michigan and Maine proposed restricting the bottling of tap water or taxing companies that do it, but the most significant effort to address the issue came in Washington state.

Legislators proposed making it the first state to ban water bottlers from using water from springs and aquifers. The bill died in a state House committee, but legislators are hoping to address the issue in the future.

Democratic Sen. Reuven Carlyle introduced the bill.

"For me, introducing this legislation was to recognize that bottled water companies were buying the rights to water, which in the West are a big deal," Carlyle said. "Purchasing up those rights to water to basically get in front of the queue, in front of tribes, in front of agriculture, in front of regular neighborhoods, to be able to purchase that water right so they can bottle it and then, in effect, ship it around the world."

But there are criticisms of the idea of governing water too much or developing a free alternative. In Washington, a Republican legislator told residents that water law changes can take years to develop and should require broad discussions about the effects because of the potential for unintended consequences.

But Carlyle points to another source of political pressure — the bottled water industry.

"I think that the industry reacted with such a vigorous lobbying opposition and such a fierce opposition because they saw this legislation as an existential threat to their ability to supersede and jump in front of the line and get access to these water systems in order to to bottle it up and resell it," Carlyle said.

There’s economic pressure, too. A lot of that comes down to what you’re actually buying when you buy a water bottle.

"Bottled water is a great convenience," Fishman said. "It's really appealing, you know when you've been on a run when you've been at the gym when you're really thirsty if you step into a convenience store and you look in the cold case and there's a bottle of water. They're sort of glistening. It's in its clear plastic bottle for $1.29. That seems really appealing."

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