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Why You Should Finally Give Up Bottled Water for Good

It takes 3 liters of water to make 1 liter of bottled water, plus 17 million barrels of oil per year. It's time to stop this incredibly destructive habit.

The average person in the United States now consumes more than 35 gallons of bottled water per year, according to data from market research firm Beverage Marketing Corp. That’s about 270 bottles per person, and that number is only going to go up: By 2017, the average American is expected to drink almost 300 bottles annually.

Here’s why that’s terrible news…

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 precious resources and a foolish threat to both national security and 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 and dangerously and expensively drill out of pristine ecosystems.

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

I mean, would you go to war or take someone’s land by force just to procure the resources to keep making plastic water bottles?

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 fossil fuels places on communities and ecosystems worldwide.

The Price of Convenience

Image: PortlandOregon.gov
Image: PortlandOregon.gov

“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.”

By Gleick’s estimate, only about a third of all bottles of water consumed in the United States are recycled, meaning that about two-thirds end up in the garbage.

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.”

As of 2006, it took 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 it 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.

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.

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.

The study also included assays for breast cancer cell proliferation, conducted at the University of Missouri. One bottled water brand spurred a 78% increase in the growth of the breast cancer cells compared to the control sample.

Separate testing done by the Natural Resources Defense Council also found many contaminants in bottled water. There have also been many recalls of bottled water due to contaminants like E. coli.

It is clear that confidence in the purity of bottled water is largely unjustified, and in many cases the industry may be delivering a beverage little cleaner than tap water—but sold at a 1,900 times the cost.

Poison Plastics

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 security and natural resources weren’t enough, there is also overwhelming evidence of adverse health effects tied to Bisphenol A, or BPA, including reproductive problems, infertility and cancer.

BPA is a widely-used chemical in the manufacturing of food and beverage containers, including baby bottles, plastic beverage bottles and aluminum cans. BPA is even absorbed into your skin from your dental sealants, toothbrush bristles and the receipt paper you get at the grocery store!

Many countries and a handful of U.S. states have strongly regulated or banned the use of BPA, but corporate lobbyists are spending billions influencing government regulatory authorities, so—absent public pressure—there’s no incentive to ban it here…yet.

I use this one!

The Healthiest Option: A Reusable Bottle

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!

Related: Why You Really Need a Water Filter (And How to Choose the Right One)

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, 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 little 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.

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About the author

Dawn Gifford

Dawn is the creator of Small Footprint Family, and the author of the critically acclaimed Sustainability Starts at Home - How to Save Money While Saving the Planet. After a 20-year career in green building and environmental sustainability, chronic illness forced her to shift her expertise and passion from the public sphere to home and hearth. Get the whole story behind SFF here.


Click here to comment. Comments are moderated. (Comment Policy and Privacy Policy.)

    • 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.

        • 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.

          • 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.”

  • 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.

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

  • 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.

    Young Bean

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

  • 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!

    • 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.

  • 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.”

  • 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.

    • 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.

      • 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.

  • 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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