The Evils of Bottled Water

By Shawn Dell Joyce

Americans are the world’s leading consumer of bottled water, downing about 4 billion gallons per year in little plastic bottles. This is roughly equal to one 8-ounce bottle per person per day.

There is much more to the ubiquitous water bottle than meets the lips. It actually takes three to five times more water to make and fill one plastic water bottle than the bottle contains. If you add to that the average energy cost of making the plastic, filling the bottle, transporting it to market and then processing the empty bottle, you begin to see the hidden environmental costs.

“It would be like filling up a quarter of every (water) bottle with oil,” says Peter Gleick, a water policy expert and director at the Oakland, Calif.-based Pacific Institute. Water bottles, like other plastic containers, are made from natural gas and petroleum, which are both nonrenewable resources.

More than 1.5 million tons of plastic are used to produce polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, which is the plastic used in water bottles. The manufacturing processes that produce PET cause serious emissions, affecting both the environment and human health. The Pacific Institute calculates that the process of making the plastic bottles consumed in the U.S. uses approximately 17 million barrels of oil per year, which could fuel 100,000 cars.

Once the plastic bottle is manufactured and filled with water, it has to be transported by diesel truck, ship or airplane. The source of this sometimes-exotic water is often as far away as Fiji or Finland. The Pacific Institute estimates that nearly a quarter of all bottled water sold around the world crosses national borders to reach consumers. For example, in 2004, Nord Water bottled and shipped 1.4 million bottles of Finnish tap water 2,700 miles, from its bottling plant in Helsinki to Saudi Arabia.

Twenty-five percent of bottled water sold domestically is simply reprocessed municipal or tap water, according to a 1999 study by the Natural Resources Defense Council. Both Aquafina, from PepsiCo Inc., and Dasani, from the Coca-Cola Co., are reprocessed from municipal water systems.

The Food and Drug Administration regulates bottled water and reports that about 75 percent of bottled water sold in the U.S.
comes from natural underground sources, which include “rivers, lakes, springs and artesian wells,” while the other 25 percent comes from municipal sources. These “municipal sources” are often the same tap water that flows through your kitchen pipes.

There are actually more regulations governing the quality of our tap water than governing the quality of bottled water in the United States. The Environmental Protection Agency sets water quality standards that are more stringent than the FDA’s standards for bottled water.

Even if the water itself is pure, a plastic container can leach chemicals, such as phthalates and bisphenol A, into the bottled water. A recent study linked breast cancer to these chemicals from plastic water bottles that heated up in the sun or hot cars. Storing the bottles in cool and dark places, such as purses and backpacks, helps reduce the leaching of these chemicals.

Reusing plastic bottles also is discouraged, because bacteria can breed inside them, as they are difficult to clean between uses. On the other hand, glass doesn’t leach chemicals, and sturdy plastic bottles can be washed repeatedly, so consumers don’t have to worry about breeding bacteria. The production of glass uses about the same amount of energy needed to produce plastic bottles, but glass can be used over and over again.

The sustainable solution is to carry your own glass or hard plastic bottle and refill it from your kitchen tap. This is also the cheapest solution, because drinking the recommended eight glasses a day from the tap costs about 49 cents per year, compared with $1,400 from bottled water.


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