Americans spent over $18.5 billion dollars on bottled water in 2017, up 7% from 2016. Much of that is due to clever advertising which leads people to believe that bottled water is a healthier and better option than tap water. However, that is not always the case. In fact, most bottled water sold in the US is nothing more than repackaged tap water, bottled in an ergonomic container with a colorful label slapped on it. To put it simply, you are often paying for an image.
How Much Are You Really Paying for Tap Water?
Both Pepsi and Coke acknowledge that Aquafina and Dasani are tap water. Just read the label. An average 20oz. bottle of water will cost you around $1.39 at a convenience store, or over $8.50 per gallon. Many people will pay $1.39 without thinking twice. But how much of a markup is that really? Let’s look at an example.
“You can buy a half-liter Evian for $1.35 — 17 ounces of water imported from France for pocket change. That water seems cheap, but only because we aren’t paying attention.
In San Francisco, the municipal water comes from Yosemite National Park. It’s so good the Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t require San Francisco to filter it. If you bought and drank a bottle of Evian, you could refill that bottle once a day for 10 years, five months and 21 days with San Francisco tap water before that water would cost $1.35. Put another way, if the water we use at home cost what even cheap bottled water costs, our monthly water bills would run $9,000.” MSN.
Let’s do some quick math. 10 years, five months and 21 days is 3,825 days. That equates to almost 4,000 bottles for the price of one. That is a HUGE markup! Sure, there are many factors to consider, such as transportation, bottling, marketing costs, and a cut of the sale price to the vendor and distributor. But who is really paying for that – the manufacturer or the consumer?
Environmental Impacts of Bottled Water
Americans throw away 30 million water bottles every day. That’s 11 billion bottles per year! The majority of plastic bottles go straight in the trash bin, even though they are recyclable. In addition to crowding our landfills, bottled water taxes local water supplies by taking water from municipal sources where it is needed, only to ship it across the country.
Bottled water requires massive amounts of raw materials to ship the final product, including plastic for the bottles, paper for labels, cardboard and plastic for cases, shipping crates, plastic shrink wrap etc. The finished product is extremely heavy and transporting water requires large quantities of fuel. Don’t forget to add fuel emissions to the list of environmental impacts.
There is a Time and Place for Bottled Water
While there are many reasons not to drink bottled water – cost and environmental impact being very good reasons – bottled water is not bad. There are many countries where bottled water is the only reliable source of safe drinking water. In the US, bottled water is a popular drink at sporting events, movies, and other locations where you cannot bring in your own refreshments.
I used to drink bottled water almost exclusively when I lived in my last home and worked in an old building. Here is my experience:
At Home: The town where I used to live has very hard water. The water is so hard that if you don’t use a water softener, your pipes will clog with calcite deposits in a matter of a few years. This is not a problem Drano can fix. This is a “it’s time to replace your entire plumbing system” type fix.
Our softened water does not taste as good as non-softened water and contains sodium left over from the softening process. We use softened water for cooking, but we bought bottled water for drinking. We did this as responsibly as possible and bought it in large recyclable containers, which we recycled weekly.
Water softeners also leave a small amount of sodium in the water which is probably fine for us because we are young and healthy. For those with diabetes or who need to limit their sodium intake, bottled water might be better for drinking.
In my opinion, our water softener changes the taste of the water. Neither my wife nor I like the way the water tastes from the faucet. We tried Brita filters and reverse osmosis filters – it still didn’t taste very good. So we bought sodium free drinking water by the gallon at Wal-Mart, where it costs about 64¢ per gallon. We would usually buy about 10 gallons at a time so we didn’t have to make frequent trips. Then we recycled the plastic containers.
At Work: The building where I worked was well over 50 years old. The pipes were old, and there were occasionally water boiling advisories in the building. I don’t know about you, but if the building managers occasionally shut down the water faucets and send out messages that water needs to be boiled before consumption, I would prefer not to drink it at all. Several coworkers contracted with a water service which provided 5-gallon bottles of water and a cooler. It cost $5 per month to pay for this service. This is a cost I gladly paid – as I mentioned, I drink a lot of water.
I drink about four 20 ounce bottles on an average workday or roughly half a gallon of water. If I were to buy a bottle of water every time I was thirsty, I would pay for my monthly water club fee in one day (bottles cost $1.25 in the vending machines). In my opinion, this is an essential cost for me. I clean and reuse water bottles that I have acquired from earlier purchases. This is a great way to save money and the environment.
How I minimize the impact of drinking bottled water:
- Cost: I would minimize the cost of drinking bottled water by buying in bulk. A gallon of water from Wal-Mart costs less than a 20 ounce bottle of water from the gas station. Joining a water club at work was another way I saved money. I also used a reusable container instead of buying new ones.
- Environmental Impact: I reuse and recycle all the water bottles I use. Yes, I would leave a smaller footprint if I didn’t purchase any bottles to begin with, but as I mentioned, that is not an option for me. Recycling is the next best thing, and I do it almost religiously. I have even taken bottles home with me to recycle if there was no other place to do it. The bottles of water from the water cooler at work are also reused.
- Health Benefits: For me, I think the health benefits are actually there. In most cases, tap water is perfectly healthy. I grew up drinking it, and continue to drink it whenever I can. But, if a water softener leaves even trace amounts of sodium, then buying sodium free bottled water is probably better for my health. I’m not sure about the quality of the water at my workplace, but at $5 a month, why take the risk?
Use Reusable Water Bottles to Save Money and the Environment
The best thing you can do is limit the number of plastic and glass water bottles you use. My wife and I purchased reusable water bottles that we take with us when we leave home, preventing further waste. In addition to keeping the landfills cleaner, there are other benefits to reusable water bottles. Many plastic bottles leach chemicals into the water, which over time, can affect your health. There are many different safe reusable water bottle options.
One example is Klean Kanteen reusable water bottles, which is the brand of reusable water bottle my wife and I purchased. We have been very happy with the switch. I fill mine from the gallon of water in our fridge every morning before work, then refill it throughout the day with tap water from work. Sometimes I bring it home full and leave it in the fridge overnight so I can bring it back to work the next day. I’m not worried about the $.10 I might save by doing this, but rather the environmental impacts of purchasing fewer bottles of water.
Bottled water can be wasteful. It is expensive, uses valuable resources during production, damages the environment by draining local water supplies, produces millions of tons of waste in the form of non-biodegradable plastic bottles, and is probably no more beneficial to your health than tap water.
You have to make your own decisions regarding bottled water. The convenience is great, but realize there are impacts you may not have considered.