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
“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.
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.
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!
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.