Professor Joseph P. Fuhr Jr.*
American consumers spend billions of dollars annually on bottled water with little knowledge about the quality and cost of such water. Many consumers are under the misconception that all bottled water is the same and comes from springs or pristine sources. However, a large percentage of bottled water actually comes from tap water, and it may be less safe or healthier than your tap water. Further, consumers are paying exorbitant prices for bottled water. This ConsumerGram will discuss these issues of safety and price, and explain how increasing use of bottled water negatively affects the environment and our dependence on oil.
Safer, Purer, Healthier and Better?
According to the Beverage Marketing Corporation sales of bottled water in the United States in 2006 were $10.8 billion. The three main reasons given for consumption of bottled water are health, taste and convenience. According to a University of Arkansas study higher income groups and younger people purchase more bottled water than lower income and older people.
Bottled water comes in many forms and from many sources. Spring water and mineral water come from underground sources that flow naturally to the earth’s surface. Purified drinking water is treated and the source does not need to be identified and can come from municipal tap water. It is estimated that about 25% (and by some accounts 40%) of bottled water is tap water (NRDC, p. 2). Bottled water is not as tightly regulated as tap water. For example, the FDA regulates bottled water whereas the EPA regulates tap water. The EPA standards are higher than FDA. Moreover, bottled water that does not cross state lines is essentially unregulated. Thus, consumers “can not assume that bottled water is better regulated, purer or safer than tap water” (NRDC, p. 1). Also, numerous taste tests have shown that most consumers can not distinguish between the taste of bottled and tap water.
It’s Money Down the Drain
The price of bottled water can be very high. For example, if one pays $1 for 16 ounces, the actual price per gallon is $8, whereas tap from most municipal water companies costs considerable less than one cent per gallon. Under this scenario a gallon of bottled water is considerably more expensive than a gallon of gasoline. As National Geographic News states, bottled water is often not healthier, but can be 10,000 times more expensive.
Also, bottled water is not environmentally friendly for three reasons. First, most bottles are made of plastic, which is derived from crude oil. The Earth Policy Institute estimates that more than 1.5 million barrels of oil are used annually to produce the bottles. Thus, the production of these bottles increases air pollution and wastes energy. Second, the bottles are usually transported by truck unlike tap water, which is transported through pipes. This transport adds to the demand for oil contributing to and making us more oil dependent and leads to increased greenhouse gas emissions. Finally, the disposal of these bottles raises environmental issues. According to the Container Recycling Institute “about 86 percent of plastic bottles in the U.S. become garbage or litter” (NGN p. 2). Also, most of the bottles are not biodegradable and end up in landfills.
In summary, bottled water may not be safer than tap water, is priced considerably higher, is not environmental friendly which causes considerable pollution and adds to United States dependence on oil. Thus, a better alternative is the familiar water bottle rather bottled water.
National Resource Defense Council, Bottled water: Pure Drink or Pure Hype?
James Owens, Bottled water Isn’t Healthier than Tap, Report Reveals, Feb.24, 2006. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2006/02/0224_060224_bottled_water.html.
* Dr. Fuhr is a professor of economics at Widener University and a Senior Fellow at the American Consumer Institute.