Water, Water, Everywhere…But at What Cost? | Civil Eats

Water, Water, Everywhere…But at What Cost?


The sale and consumption of “bottled water” continues to grow at an astounding rate throughout the world. This is especially so in the USA. If you have ever traveled well off the beaten path in a third world country, the lack of safe and reliable water for drinking, bathing, and cooking is always a concern. And with good reason—for much of the world, this is a very real problem that leads to countless cases of disease and even death, the likes of which you would not expect in this country.

That bottled water sales and consumption continues to increase dramatically in this country seems to defy logic, since nearly every American has access to reliable, safe, and relatively cheap water delivered right to the tap. Nevertheless, bottled water is purchased by American consumers for a wide variety of reasons, ranging from convenience or a healthier alternative to soft drinks, to worry over the quality of potable water from municipal systems. No doubt heavy marketing to consumers plays a role. It’s hard to pick up a magazine or look at the TV these days without seeing an ad for water. The three largest producers of bottled water in the USA are the Coca-Cola Company (Dasani), the Pepsi Cola Company (Aquafina), and Nestle (Pure Life and other brands).

But the relatively cheap luxury of a bottle of Evian or Fiji spring water comes with serious hidden costs. What to do with all those empty bottles is an obvious consequence. What about the impacts of water extraction on local watersheds? And what of the energy consumed to produce, fill, ship, and cool it? As a result, a backlash has developed among some consumers, restaurants, and even municipalities over the societal and environmental costs of bottled water.

A recent paper published in the research journal Environmental Research Letters [PDF] took a look at the amount of energy consumed by the bottled water industry in the USA. The authors, Peter Gleick and Heather Cooley of the Pacific Institute in Oakland, CA, noted that in 2007, the last year for which detailed global data were available, more than 200 billion liters of bottled water were sold, largely in North America and Europe, but with rapidly expanding sales in many developing countries as well. During that same year, the Beverage Marketing Corporation, which tracks beverage sales, estimated that consumers in the United States purchased over 33 billion liters of bottled water or an average of over 110 liters per person. That’s nearly 30 gallons per person! And despite rising interest with “green” consumption, Americans drank 70% more bottled water than they did in 2001. Bottled water sales have now far surpassed the sales of milk and beer. The only beverage category with larger sales is carbonated soft drinks. Furthermore, per-capita bottled water consumption is growing, while per-capita sales of milk and soft drinks are falling, according to the US Department of Agriculture.

The vast majority of single-use plastic water bottles are made out of polyethylene terephthalate (also known at PET). PET is a thermoplastic polymer resin used for a wide variety of purposes, ranging from the production of polyester fibers and clothing to food and beverage containers. Take a look at your bottle next time: PET has a number 1 stamped on the bottom.

In their study, Gleick and Hooley found the energy footprint required for various phases of bottled water production, transportation, and use is enormous. For water transported short distances, the energy requirements of bottled water are dominated by the energy to produce the PET bottles. Long-distance transport, however, can lead to energy costs comparable to, or even larger than, the energy to produce the bottle. (They compared the transportation costs for bottles of water shipped to Los Angeles from a nearby source, from the island Fiji in the South Pacific, and from France.) Far less energy is needed for processing and treating the water, and cooling bottles for retail sale.

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Combining all of the energy inputs totals, they estimate that producing bottled water requires as much as 2,000 times the energy cost of producing tap water! Given an annual consumption of 33 billion liters of bottled water in the US, the annual consumption of bottled water in the USA in 2007 required an energy input equivalent to between 32 and 54 million barrels of oil or a third of a percent of total US primary energy consumption. Put another way, each bottle of water we’re consuming is about 15-20% oil! And to satisfy global bottled water demand, they estimate that roughly three times this (USA amount) of energy is required.

Photo: mengels7

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Britt Bunyard, PhD, operates a small sustainable farm in Wisconsin and is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Fungi, a journal dedicated to all aspects of mushrooms and other fungi. Read more >

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  1. Great post. I think that people buy so much bottled water, because we are completely surrounded by it and told that we need to drink it. It seems very convenient to just buy and carry a bottle of water. I think for most people it also feels healthier than drinking water from the tap. Everyone needs to read more articles like this to learn about the true costs of bottled water. Frankly, I used to drink a lot bottled water. Ever since going to Slow Food Nation and reading about the issues-I've purchased almost no bottled water.
  2. Rob Smart
    Thank you for raising awareness on this important issue. The part of this particular problem that perplexes me is how to stop the marketing and retail side of bottled water. Given what I expect are relatively high profit margins, combined with massive sales volumes (similar to soft drinks), we will likely have to pry water bottles from the cold dead hands of Coke, Nestle and Pepsi. And while we're at it, we will need to do the same with other unsustainable, climate unfriendly processed foods dominating supermarket shelves.
  3. I am very interested in water purification. Having safe water to drink is a major concern to me. I don't want to rely on the city to provide it for me in case of an emergency. Also we are planning to live in the country, and may need to purify our well water.

    I'd rather purify my own than buy bottled. I know that brita isn't really enough when we may have serious concerns about water purification.

    I would love to know more about other water purification systems that aren't too expensive but that can remove toxins as well as bacteria or viruses from water.
  4. Hi Paula, thanks for the comments. If you're moving to the country and will have a well, you'll likely enjoy the water as is. Of course you can get it tested to know exactly what's in it; tests do not cost much. When we moved to our farm here in SE Wisconsin we had the water tested. Although we do not use herbicides there were traces in the water, either due to continued use nearby or as a legacy of the land having been farmed for more than 100 years (before going fallow in the few years before we got ahold of it). As part of our major restoration job on our 1877 farmhouse, we had a GE reverse osmosis purification system installed for use in the kitchen. I wasn't so worried about the trace amounts of herbicides but did not like the taste, especially for coffee, tea, cooking etc. Mind you, most well water tastes good to me, but ours doesn't. Not in the kitchen anyway. The GE system does a great job and for those purchasing bottled water, I'm sure it's much cheaper in the long run to buy a system. Plus no plastic bottles to recycle!

    It's weird that we do not like the taste of the water in the kitchen, because we drink the same water straight from the hose or in the barn and find it terrific. (Guess when it's hot outside, I'm parched, and the water's coming ice cold straight from far below, my taste buds react differently!)

    For your country well, you may not need to do anything. And you should NOT have a problem with bacteria or viruses unless there's a contamination. That will be known immediately if you have a test. The benefit of using well water (ground water) is that it's pretty devoid of life, unlike surface water. Cities using surface water as a source, clean and sanitize to kill off living organisms but this process can actually result, in some instances, in other toxic compounds being generated (some are known as polyaromatic hydrocarbons, PAHs). Now that these are well known, cities are starting to check for them as well.

    You should be able to sleep easy at nights knowing your water's coming right out of the ground!

  5. Jen
    Um, actually bottled water sales are starting to drop. Last year Nestle reported a drop in sales in its bottled water division for the first time in years. Lots of cities are debating, or even passing, bans on the sale of bottled water. This year Nestle is actually reducing its spending in its bottled water division.

    Of course comparing sales from 2001 will make it look like bottled water sales are rising, but if you look at more recent figures, they are slowly beginning to decline.

    Check it out: http://www.alternet.org/water/130920/bottled_water_industy_faces_downward_spiral/
  6. Terrific Jen!
    Thanks for setting me straight and keeping me current!
  7. Excellent information here.

    The problem is that a lot of people are not willing to change habits. The more we consume bottled water the more the producers will think we love their products.

    Tap water in most municipalities are good or better than some bottled water.
  8. Jon
    While traveling in Europe, I noticed that bottled water is actually much more common there than in the US. I know its very tempting to bash the US on this because we are so much less environmentally conscious than Japanese and Europeans, but in this respect, I think you have singled out the wrong country.

    In Europe, its virtually impossible to get a glass of tap water in a restaurant. This is unlikely to change soon due to the entrenched interests of the restaurants that are making 3-4 euros per .2l bottle. Its really outrageous, and I actually felt grateful to the laws in most US states and cities that require free tap water to be served with a purchased dine-in meal.

    From my limited experience, I found Europeans to view tap water as unsafe, even in the home. I have found the same view in Japan, but more people use inline water purification rather than bottled, and recycling (always pet) bottles there is an almost religious commitment. I wonder if this has to do with the population densities in those places actually making the water unsafe? I dont know.

    I also noticed a much higher pecentage of the bottles in Europe were glass not PET. I have heard that glass bottle are less energy intensive to make, but it got me wondering about the whole chain. The glass bottles are significantly heavier (relevant to energy use during shipping and the mass is also relevant to the cost of cooling the bottle) and have more volume (relevant if the bottle ends up in a landfill).

    anyway, thanks for the article, its something I've been thinking about for a long time.

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