Passing (On Bottled) Water

by | May 19, 2011 1 Sustainability

Oregon first introduced its landmark Bottle Bill in the early 1970’s as a way to reduce litter and encourage recycling. The original language included only carbonated and malt beverages because these were the most common containers disposed of along Oregon highways. The Bottle Bill was initially written to be flexible, but the market has continued to produce “single-serving” beverages and containers that no one could anticipate (Monster Energy Drink, anyone?).  The most significant amendment came during the 2007 legislative session when the bill was expanded to include water bottles and flavored water bottles.

On 5/18/11, a more modern version of the Bottle Bill passed through the Senate Committee on Environment and Resources and is headed to the floor for discussion. The new Bottle Bill (HB 3145) would include a broader array of “single-serving” beverages, including sports drinks and teas, and will increase the deposit from 5 cents per container to 10 cents per container if recycling rates drop below 80% for two consecutive years.

To celebrate this landmark event, we’re highlighting Crawford Smith’s opinion piece in which he points out the industry’s brilliant marketing efforts despite the potential fatal flaws of bottled water. [Crawford is a Building Information Management (BIM) specialist here at SERA.]

We often take for granted many of the conveniences that technology has provided for us. Cheap electricity, convenient transportation, access to a variety of foods, heating and air conditioning are just a few items that we scarcely give a thought to, yet would have seemed like extravagances just a few decades ago. We seldom stop to think about how much of an influence things such as these have on our lives. Occasionally, when a storm hits and the power goes out, we are confronted with the importance of such services and products. Yet once the power is restored, we quickly forget how good we really have it.

One such overlooked service is our access to safe, clean water. The United States enjoys one of the cleanest water supplies in the world. The federal Environmental Protection Agency enforces treatment and testing protocols for the nation’s water supply. Water goes through a multi-step process during which it is first treated to remove sediments and suspended solids, then filtered, and finally disinfected before being piped to the end users. Municipal water systems are required to test the water frequently for a variety of contaminants, and promptly inform the public if a problem is detected. Hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent over the years to develop this system of water treatment and delivery. Today, over 160,000 public water systems treat and deliver nearly 34 billion gallons of clean drinking water daily.[i] This is done at an amazingly low cost for the consumer, averaging a fraction of a penny per gallon.

Despite the safety and convenience of the drinking water in the U.S., more and more Americans rely on bottled water to quench their thirst. The growth of bottled water consumption has been phenomenal, with a 1700% increase in per-capital consumption between 1976 and 2006.[ii] In 2006, Americans consumed 2.6 billion cases of bottled water.[iii]

Given the effort and expense that goes into providing clean tap water, we must have a pretty compelling reason for consuming so much bottled water. The two most frequently cited reasons for choosing bottled water over municipal water are taste and healthfulness. Upon closer inspection, however, these proffered reasons don’t really hold water.

In blind taste tests, respondents were rarely able to tell the difference between bottled water and tap water.[iv] Bruce Nevins, the man largely responsible for introducing Perrier to the U.S., was unable to distinguish between his product and six other generic types of carbonated water on a live radio broadcast.

Courtesy of

Courtesy of

Even more telling was a segment run by comedian/magicians Penn and Teller in their cable TV series. In their show, they secretly set up cameras in an upscale New York restaurant. An actor posing as a “water steward” approached tables and convinced customers to try samples from his list of exotic bottled waters. The customers, who were told that they were being charged between $7 and $10 per bottle, would wax ecstatic about how good the exotic bottled waters tasted, and how they could easily tell the difference between the bottle of bogus Mt. Fuji water and the bogus bottle of Amazon rainforest water (complete with a dead spider in the bottle). The kicker was that the “water steward” was filling up all of these water bottles with a garden hose in the alley behind the restaurant.[vi]

It therefore seems that people’s perception of bottled water tasting better than tap water is more of a misconception based on our ingrained consumer training. We’ve been conditioned to believe that something that is more expensive and flashily packaged is inherently better than a generic alternative.

Another frequently cited reason for choosing bottled water is that it is healthier than tap water. As has been mentioned, the EPA oversees rather strict testing and treatment procedures for municipal water. Surely, there are even more stringent procedures in place for bottled water that result in its perception as being healthier. Not so. The Food and Drug Administration is responsible for the quality of bottled water, and not the EPA, so the same set of standards are not applied. Also, the FDA does not regulate waters that are sold in the same state in which they are bottled, which accounts for approximately 60% to 70% of the bottled water sold in the United States.[vii] In essence, much of the bottled water sold in the U.S. is regulated only by state agencies, many of which have less than one full-time worker devoted to the oversight process.

Nevertheless, there is a certain percentage of bottled water sold in the U.S. that should be at least as safe as tap water, because it is tap water. It is estimated that between 25% and 40% of all bottled water sold in the U.S. comes from municipal sources, including PepsiCo’s AquaFina and Coca Cola’s Dasani.[viii] PepsiCo conceded to growing environmentalist and consumer advocate pressure, and began including the phrase “Public Water Source” on their AquaFina labels.[ix]

Even with municipally-sourced water making up a large proportion of bottled water sold in the U.S., questions remain about the healthfulness of bottled water. The Natural Resources Defense Council tested over 100 brands of bottled water and found that nearly 25% of the waters tested violated the California state limits for arsenic or cancer-causing chemicals. Nearly 20% had more bacteria than allowed under the bottled water industry’s own guidelines. In all, nearly 1/3 of the bottled waters sampled violated an enforceable state standard or exceeded microbiological contamination guidelines, or both.[x]

The reasons given for choosing bottled water over tap water have little or no validity. Most people can’t tell the difference in taste between bottled water and tap water. Similarly, there is no evidence at all that bottled water is healthier than tap water, and in many cases it may even be more dangerous.

What are the costs associated with bottled water? For every dollar one spends on a bottle of water, about 50 cents goes into the pocket of the retailer. Approximately 30 cents goes to cover the distributor for fees and shipping costs. Of the remaining 20 cents, one dime covers the costs of the water, the bottle and cap. The final ten cents is profit for the bottler.[xi]

This seems like a fairly straightforward retail breakdown, but there are hidden environmental costs as well. Even if we don’t mind paying a 1000% markup over the cost of the packaging and the actual water, there are other factors which should be considered as well.

The plastic bottles that contain the water are generally not subject to bottle-return laws. Fortunately, that is starting to change, but nearly 90% of water bottles end up in landfills. This amounts to 38 billion plastic bottles in the trash.[xii] At an average of 15 grams per bottle, this amounts to over half a million tons every year. The value of the plastic alone is over $1 billion, requiring more than 1.5 million barrels of oil to manufacture.[xiii]

That’s a lot of collectively expensive plastic in the trash, and a lot of increasingly expensive petroleum used to manufacture these one-use-only containers. Yet even more petroleum is consumed in shipping the water to its point of consumption.

Water is a relatively dense substance, with a gallon weighing 8.3 pounds. Hauling truckloads of water around burns a lot of fuel, and sometimes the water has to travel quite a long way. Even if it didn’t, the trips from the local bottling plant burn a lot of gasoline. For example, if every bottle of water consumed in the U.S. were shipped a mere 15 miles before being purchased, over 8 million gallons of fuel would be consumed.[xiv]

But some brands of bottled water travel much further than 15 miles. Poland Spring water is bottled and shipped from the state of Maine. Transporting one truckload of Poland Spring water from Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon – a trip of 3,200 miles – consumes over 750 gallons of fuel.[xv]

Piles of Poland Springs

Some water has to travel much further than that. San Pellegrino is shipped from Italy. Fiji water actually comes from Fiji. It travels four hours by highway from the bottling plant to the port, and is then shipped several thousand miles by container ship to the United States’ west coast, and from there may travel several thousand more miles in another truck to get to its final destination.

That’s a lot of valuable fuel being burned to supply us with a product that we can get delivered into our homes for a tiny portion of the cost. There are even further hidden costs inherent in the pollution generated by burning the fuel, the political costs of supplying the petroleum, and so on. Contrast this with the effort involved in transporting municipal water from source to destination. Many areas rely on gravity to do the bulk of the work of transportation. This is nonpolluting and, as of the time of this writing, still free.

Bottled water is neither better-tasting nor healthier than regular tap water, yet we continue to voluntarily pay big bucks for a commodity that is provided cheaply and safely right to our own homes. In many cases (e.g. Dasani and AquaFina), we are paying to have beverage companies package and resell us the exact same water that we get through our taps. We consume huge quantities of increasingly-expensive oil to package and ship it, and damage the environment in the process.

It would be easy to rail against the invidious influence of corporate marketing in our decision-making process that leads us to make such purchases. One would think that a major marketing campaign would be needed to convince consumers to pay upwards of six dollars for something they can get from the taps in their homes for a fraction of a penny. Surprisingly, this is not necessarily the case. The amount of money spent marketing bottled water is just 15% of the amount spent on other soft drinks.[xvi] In essence we are selling this commodity to ourselves at an incredible markup, just for the sake of a little added convenience. The increased consumption of bottled water is merely one – albeit one of the most egregious – examples of the pointless and expensive waste inherent in U.S. consumer culture. Perhaps, as Jello Biafra obliquely suggested, our coins and dollar bills should be engraved with the motto “Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death.” [xvii] We are throwing away our money and harming our environment by consuming something we simply do not need, and the reasons that are given for this behavior are simply not valid.

It’s enough to drive a person to drink.

[v] Fishman


[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiv] Assumes water is being hauled in a Freightliner M2-106 beverage truck with a fuel efficiency of 4.5 mpg, at an average of 15,750 bottles per trip.

[xv] Assumes water is being hauled in a fully-loaded Freightliner Columbia tractor-trailer with a fuel efficiency of 4.25 mpg, at an average of 57,600 bottles per trip.


One Comment

  1. An interesting and disturbing account of the National Park Service’s failed attempt (for now) to ban plastic bottles from the Grand Canyon: