Why You Should Quit Drinking Bottled Water for Good

hundreds of water bottles littering the shores of a lake

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The average person in the United States consumes more than 45 gallons of bottled water per year, for a total of 60 billion water bottles a year. Nine out of 10 Americans now expect bottled water to be available wherever other drinks are sold, according to a survey conducted for the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA) by The Harris Poll.

Here’s why that’s terrible news, and why you should quit drinking bottled water today…

Bottles Dripping in Oil

Did you know that, every year, the equivalent of 17 million barrels of oil are used to produce plastic water and soda bottles in the U.S.—not including transportation? Or that bottling water produces more than 2.5 million tons of carbon dioxide per year?

What an incredible waste of resources and a foolish threat to the climate—all for a bottle you use once and throw away!

The more we squander what little accessible oil we have on really stupid things like single-use plastic bottles, the more we have to procure from other countries or dangerously and expensively drill out of pristine ecosystems.

Given all the war, corruption and environmental devastation caused around the world by the demand for oil, this is neither politically nor environmentally sustainable.

Anything we can do to quickly and permanently phase out disposable plastic bottles would help improve our relationship with the people living in oil and gas-rich nations, reduce economic and environmental waste at home, and ease the burden that extracting and burning fossil fuels places on communities and ecosystems worldwide.

The Price of Convenience

A 2021 study in the journal Science of the Total Environment compared the health and environmental benefits of bottled water, tap water, and filtered tap water in the city of Barcelona, Spain, where bottled water is becoming more popular. The results were overwheming: Tap water is better than bottled water, both for people and for the planet.

Researchers found that if the entire population of Barcelona decided to drink bottled water instead of tap water, it would cost $83.9 million per year to extract the raw materials needed for bottles, which would destroy 1.43 species per year. Compared to tap water, that’s 3,500 times the cost, 2,000 times the energy, and 1,400 times the impact on ecosystems.

Plastic Bottles are Down-Cycled, Not Recycled

thousands of plastic bottles washed up on a riverbank

“The bottled water industry says correctly, but misleadingly, that the plastic the water comes in is recyclable,” says Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute. “It’s misleading, because recyclable is not the same thing as recycled.”

Only 8.7% of plastic water bottles consumed in the United States are recycled, meaning that about 91% ends up in the garbage or littering the streets.

Even the minority of bottles that do get recycled are simply down-cycled. In other words, after one more incarnation, they will end up in the landfill (or as litter) anyway.

Next to plastic bags, plastic bottles are the most prevalent (and unsightly) source of pollution found on our beaches and shores. Each year, over 500 billion disposable bottles and cups end up littering our soil, rivers, lakes and oceans, killing countless fish and animals. The sad image above is becoming all-too-common at lakes, rivers and beaches across the U.S.

According to Gleick:

“There is no comparison with the environmental footprint of bottled water. Of course, the plastic footprint is the same as it is with other drinks which come in bottles. But that argument is disingenuous, because for bottled water the alternative isn’t soda, it’s tap water. And the environmental footprint of bottled water vastly exceeds the environmental footprint of cheap, high-quality tap water. It’s not even close.”

The Water Footprint of Bottled Water

At the most basic level, it takes 3 liters of water to produce 1 liter of bottled water, according to the Pacific Institute. In other words, before even adding up the energy needed to produce the actual bottles—which is significant—bottled water was already three times as inefficient as tap water.

But when NPR looked closely at this issue, it found that they study failed to consider the entire chain of waste that goes into producing and selling bottled beverages:

Bottled water companies (along with many other beverage companies) should include the water in their supply chain, says Ertug Ercin with the Water Footprint Network. Ercin says a true water footprint includes all freshwater used in production, including the water used for packaging.

“Packaging makes a significant footprint,” he says, adding that three liters of water might be used to make a half-liter bottle. In other words, the amount of water going into making the bottle could be up to six or seven times what’s inside the bottle.

Drilling for oil to make plastic, Ercin says, uses a substantial amount of groundwater. And you need water to make the paper labels, too, he adds. Putting it all together, from cradle to grave, it actually takes about 6 liters of water to make 1 liter of bottled water.

Bottled Water is No Safer Than Tap Water

Although many people believe bottled water to be healthier than tap water, the truth is, the federal government does not mandate that bottled water be any safer than tap water. In fact, the chemical pollution standards are nearly identical.

Tap water is also tested more frequently than bottled water. A lot of the bottled water sold in the U.S. is just treated water from our municipal water systems—the same place our tap water comes from.

Even worse, while most public water utilities are required to disclose their testing results to the public every year, bottled water companies are not required to release their testing data to the public at all, except in the state of California, where a minimum of information is required. So if you buy bottled water, you just can’t be sure of what you’re getting.

Extensive research done by The Environmental Working Group (EWG) found 38 contaminants in 10 popular brands of bottled water, including disinfection byproducts, industrial chemicals, arsenic, fertilizer residue and pain medication.

Separate testing done by the Natural Resources Defense Council also found many contaminants in bottled water. In a study of more than one hundred bottled water brands, one­-third of the brands tested had at least one sample that exceeded recommended levels for bacteria and/or chemical contaminants.

It is clear that confidence in the purity and safety of bottled water is largely unjustified, and in many cases the industry may be delivering a beverage no cleaner than filtered tap water—but sold at a 2,000 times the cost.

Related:

Poison in the Plastic

Plastic beverage bottles are made from PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate) polymer. According to the EPA, toxic pollutants, including styrene, butadiene and methanol are released into the air during its production—for all of us to inhale.

And air pollution is an ongoing by-product of plastic bottles as they are made, filled, packaged and transported to consumers.

According to the National Resources Defense Council:

In 2006, the equivalent of 2 billion half-liter bottles of water were shipped to U.S. ports, creating thousands of tons of global warming pollution and other air pollution. In New York City alone, the transportation of bottled water from western Europe released an estimated 3,800 tons of global warming pollution into the atmosphere. In California, 18 million gallons of bottled water were shipped in from Fiji in 2006, producing about 2,500 tons of global warming pollution.

From creation to disposal, these bottles contribute to air pollution. And many of the chemicals that go into their production continue to leach out into the air and into the water they hold.

If the threat to our natural resources weren’t enough, there is also overwhelming evidence of adverse health effects tied to toxic chemicals that leach from the plastic bottles into the water we drink.

Antimony

PET is the plastic used for water and soft drink bottles, mouthwash bottles, containers for condiments like nut butters and ketchup, and TV dinner trays. PET is considered safe, but it can actually leach the toxic metal antimony, which is used during its manufacture.

One study that looked at 63 brands of bottled water produced in Europe and Canada found concentrations of antimony that were more than 100 times the typical level found in clean groundwater.

The study also found that the longer a PET bottle sits on the shelf—in a grocery store, your pantry, or your car—the greater the amount of antimony present. It is also thought that the amount of antimony leaching from these PET bottles increases the more they are exposed to sunlight, higher temperatures, and varying pH levels.

Bromine

Brominated compounds have also been found to leach into PET bottles. Bromine displaces iodine in the body, and is a central nervous system depressant. It can accumulate over time, and trigger health problems.

Microplastics

Microplastic contamination is also common in bottled water. Microplastics are tiny particles of plastic that leach into liquid or food from the container they’re housed in. Although more research is needed to understand the effects of microplastic ingestion, studies suggest that chemicals like BPA, antimony, and other endocrine disruptors found in microplastics might be harmful to human health.

In a 2018 study, eleven globally sourced brands of bottled water, purchased in 19 locations in nine different countries, were tested for microplastic contamination. Of the 259 total bottles processed, 93% showed some sign of microplastic contamination. 

The Healthiest Option: A Reusable Bottle

Lifefactory bottle in light blue
I use this one!

There is nothing healthier for you, your wallet, and the planet than filtered tap water in a reusable bottle. (Where to find water filters online.)

Most bottled waters brands contain nothing more than filtered tap water anyway, so a good filter for your tap water at home will pay for itself quickly. Plus you can use the filtered water for cooking, too!

There are many types of reusable bottles to choose from, and it can be hard to know which are safe and do not leach toxins into your beverage.

A recent study published in the Environmental Health Perspective Journal tested baby bottles, reusable plastic water bottles and other products advertised as BPA-Free, and found that, while indeed BPA-free, they all released other toxic, hormone-affecting chemicals. In fact, some BPA-free plastic containers tested higher for harmful chemicals than the “regular” ones with BPA!

“BPA-Free” is no guarantee that your reusable bottle isn’t leaching toxic, hormone-disrupting chemicals into your beverage.

The safest and most eco-friendly reusable bottles are made from glass or stainless steel. Both glass and steel bottles are made in lots of fun colors and designs, and some are thermal, allowing you to keep hot beverages hot and cold ones cold.

Choose one (or two) you like, and carry it with you so you always have it on hand at home, work, the gym, or on the town. That way, you’ll never have to risk your health or the health of the planet by buying beverages in plastic bottles again!

The True Cost of Bottled Water

This video by Annie Leonard explores the bottled water industry’s use of seductive, environmental-themed advertising to cover up the precious oil it squanders and the mountains of plastic waste it produces.

Updated August 28, 2021

26 thoughts on “Why You Should Quit Drinking Bottled Water for Good”

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    1. Microfibers come from clothing, and are made of plastic, but they are not plastic bottles. Plastic bottles however do shed tiny micro-particles of plastic when you open them, so you are swallowing bits of plastic every time you drink out of one.

        1. It’s just not true that you NEED to filter it. Tap water is perfectly safe to drink. Filtering it will take out some chemicals and minerals yes. But it is not necessary to filter tap water in almost all western civilisations.

          1. I read the water reports from my local water utility, and I have to disagree. If I lived in Flint, Michigan, or any of the many other cities in the U.S. where lead and other heavy metals are leaching into the tap water and harming people, I’d be livid right now. Most municipal tap water is within EPA allowable limits for various chemicals. This low bar does not make it “safe.”

  1. I also believe that the safest way it to have a reusable water bottle. This will definitely reduce bottled water consumption. I also think that filtering our own water is much safer than buying bottled water which has harmful chemicals in it. Thanks for sharing this article.

  2. This is great! I used it for a research project and cited this source in MLA format. Thanks, Dawn Gifford!

  3. Young Bean Kim

    Dear Mrs. Gifford

    We are Young Bean Kim and Masaki Tamanuki of Saigon South International School in Vietnam. We are currently working on a documentary to try and reduce plastic bottle use. We saw your post about how plastic bottles are bad for the environment and we too, believe that everyone should stop using plastic bottles and instead use a reusable bottle, and so if possible we would like to ask you a few questions regarding how plastic bottle use is bad for the environment for our documentary.

    If you are interested to help us, please be sure to send us a reply as soon as possible and we will send you the questions we will be asking beforehand.

    Sincerely,
    Young Bean
    (yokim22@ssis.edu.vn)

  4. After read this message, I will switch to reusable stainless steel bottles soon. Thank Dawn Gifford.

  5. I would like to switch to reusable stainless steel bottles, and I have quite a few, but we live near a paper mill plant and our water isn’t good. Is there a good filter you recommend not only for drinking water, but bath and shower water too?
    Thank you so much, I would love to help make a difference without putting toxins in my body!

    1. This is the shower filter I use. There are very few shower filters that remove fluoride too, but it’s important to me. So, this is the best one I’ve found although you have to replace it every year. http://amzn.to/1aCjh2i

      This is a decent, affordable reverse osmosis filter for under your sink, though if you can afford a better one, it’s a good idea to get the best you can afford. You will need to put trace minerals back into any reverse osmosis water though; it filters EVERYTHING out, including the good stuff. http://amzn.to/18zyZdN

      The easiest way to restore minerals to reverse osmosis-filtered water is to use a product like Concentrace http://amzn.to/17A1HXn You can also buy a reverse osmosis filter that adds the minerals back in automatically, but they cost a bit more.

  6. Hi, i just recently quit drinkin from plastic bottles this May 2012. It has been hard since there are carbonated drinks and other beverages that doesn’t have an ‘ aluminum/tin can counterpart’ here in Philippines. Sacrificed those. Small price to pay. My friends bantered that I am fighting a losing battle! I shared them this parable I read from the parable site.com and they shut up about it. 🙂 Anyways, if you are having small problems like mine, here’s the parable for you to share –

    Make a Difference

    Once upon a time there was a wise man who used to go to the ocean to do his writing. He had a habit of walking on the beach before he began his work. One day he was walking along the shore. As he looked down the beach, he saw a human figure moving like a dancer. He smiled to himself to think of someone who would dance to the day. So he began to walk faster to catch up. As he got closer, he saw that it was a young man and the young man wasn’t dancing, but instead he was reaching down to the shore, picking up something and very gently throwing it into the ocean. As he got closer he called out,”Good morning! What are you doing?” The young man paused, looked up and replied, “Throwing starfish in the ocean.” “I guess I should have asked, why are you throwing starfish in the ocean?” “The sun is up and the tide is going out. And if I don’t throw them in they’ll die.” “But, young man, don’t you realize that there are miles and miles of beach and starfish all along it. You can’t possibly make a difference!” The young man listened politely. Then bent down, picked another starfish and threw it into the sea, past the breaking waves and said, “It made a difference for that one.”

  7. hi, i’m with on some of this. i found your post on fight back friday at food renegade and i’ve just started on a plastic-free journey. i don’t know if you were simply trying for sensationalism but your headline and reference to national security are utterly false. how, please tell me, does america’s need for oil make america, as a nation, less secure? i can see the case for america’s use of oil making iraq and afghanistan less secure. saudi arabia as well. if america was not storming the globe to get more oil there are many countries that would be safer, but america? which specific instance(s) are you referring to? the only thing you mentioned was having to import from other countries. if the simple act of trade between countries has national security implications then i think the ‘trade’ is actually bullying and stealing or, at the very least, is not being approached in the right way. the phrase ‘national security’ pushes certain buttons in some people. is that all you were trying to do? there are more justified and compelling (and accurate) ways to get people to give up bottled water.

    1. I am very serious about this and I am ok with pushing buttons about it. American oil, coal and gas companies are responsible for some of the worst human rights abuses and environmental devastation on the planet. Period. Full stop. They prop up corrupt, dictatorial regimes in the Mideast, Africa and South America that displace and disappear entire villages and destroy entire ecosystems in the name of petrochemical profit.

      Oil, coal and gas are finite resources that we have no problem getting in bed with dictators or going to war over, as evidenced by the past 20 years of military activity in the Gulf and Afghanistan. We, as citizens, pay for these wars with our children’s future—one that isn’t going to have much oil in it anyway. But if war weren’t enough, we subsidize the immoral activity of Big Petro with our tax dollars every day of the year. Then add injury to insult, we pay again in the cost of the water, the pollution on both the manufacture and disposal end, and the health costs of chemicals like BPA. All of this deeply threatens the health and security of our nation. A sick, polluted, broke nation can’t lead at anything.

      If you think that American corporate behavior abroad and our oil-centric, imperialist government and military policies have nothing to do with the safety of our soldiers and citizens living abroad, or nothing to do with terrorist attacks both in the U.S. and abroad, then I suggest you are not seeing the full picture. As long as we, as a nation, continue to bully the world for oil to make really stupid things like disposable bottles, we are complicit in this imperialist cycle that really does threaten all of us, on many levels.

      1. i agree with you; that was my point. what i said was that your headline did not match up with the content of your post. in your reply to my comment you mention many ways that our national security is threatened but in your post you simply said because we have to ‘import from other countries’.

        buttons are best pushed with solid information, not scaremongering. the ‘national security’ button is usually located on very right-wing individuals and is pushed when our freedoms are being threatened by our own government (ie patriot act). it is the kind of appeal to be found on fox news.

        there are many resources we use from many different countries. all of us would be safer, americans and citizens of other countries, if we engaged in fair trade. since that’s not likely, i absolutely agree with you that lowering our use of unfairly traded goods is the best solution.

        but not in the context of ‘or else THEY are going to hurt us’. which is what national security implies.

  8. I have been following this problem for years. I such a bad problem. I wish that more people take care in disposing their PET bottles, or even better use metal/ reusable ones.

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