National Geographic News
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More than $100 billion is spent every year on bottled water globally.

Photograph by Vladimir Mucibabic/Shutterstock

Solvie Karlstrom and Christine Dell'Amore

National Geographic's Green Guide

Published March 10, 2010

Bottled water is a drain on the environment: The U.S. public goes through about 50 billion water bottles a year, and most of those plastic containers are not recycled, according to Elizabeth Royte's 2008 book Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It.

Transporting the bottles and keeping them cold also burns fossil fuels, which give off greenhouse gases. And groundwater pumping by bottled-water companies draws heavily on underground aquifers and harms watersheds, according to the Sierra Club, an environmental nonprofit. And according to some estimates, it takes up to three liters of water to produce one liter of bottled water.

Yet more than U.S. $100 billion is spent every year on bottled water globally. In many cities in developing countries where there is not a safe source of tap water, bottled water becomes a somewhat trusted option.

But in the U.S., where tap water is federally regulated and often screened for dangerous pollutants, the public drinks 21 gallons (79 liters) of bottled water per capita per year on average, according to the Columbia Water Center at Columbia University's Earth Institute in New York. The bottled-water industry is so successful, it has outpaced milk, coffee, and juice in number of gallons of drinks sold—putting it behind only beer and soda.

Water Bottle Bans

Though the sale and consumption of bottled water is still on the rise, certain policymakers and activists have taken steps to reduce it and encourage people to drink tap. In September 2009, the Australian city of Bundanoon became the first city in the world to completely ban bottled water from its stores' shelves, installing water fountains around the city instead.

Among U.S. cities that have taken action are San Francisco and Seattle, which no longer buy water for city use, and Chicago, which added a five-cent tax on each bottle. Several restaurants in those cities have also given up bottled for filtered tap. Other cities are also considering taking action.

The tide toward tap has boosted businesses that make reusable water bottles, especially aluminum and stainless steel varieties. Many reusable bottles are made of polycarbonate plastic, but those often contain bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical linked to reproductive problems and heart disease. In response, some polycarbonate-bottle makers have phased out BPA and advertise "BPA-free" products.

(Related: "Chemical BPA Linked to Heart Disease, Study Confirms.")

Health Costs

Not only does bottled water contribute to excessive waste, but it costs us a thousand times more than water from our faucet at home, and it's likely no safer or cleaner, experts say. A 2008 investigation by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group found some bottled water is sullied with untested industrial chemicals and may not necessarily be cleaner than tap water.

(Related: "What's Best for Kids: Bottled Water or Fountains?")

Water aside, the plastic used in single-use bottles can pose more of a contamination threat than the water. A safe plastic if used only once, #1 polyethylene terephthalate (PET or PETE) is the most common resin used in disposable bottles. However, as #1 bottles are reused, as they commonly are, they can leach chemicals such as DEHA, a possible human carcinogen, and benzyl butyl phthalate (BBP), a potential hormone disruptor. And because the plastic is porous you'll likely get a swill of harmful bacteria with each gulp if you reuse the bottles.

Bottled Tap Water

More than 80 percent of recyclable plastic bottles end up in landfills each year. They do not break down naturally and release toxic chemicals when they finally do decompose, according to the Columbia Water Center.

Another major problem with bottled water, according to Columbia, is that a traditionally public good has been privatized. Bottled water companies gain high profits by drawing water from public water sources, putting it in plastic containers, and reselling it at 2,900 times the price of regular tap. Some experts contend that the profits from bottled water companies could go toward improving public water supplies and infrastructure—making better water for everyone.

With reporting by Eliza Barclay

24 comments
schultzy beckett
schultzy beckett

We all know that tap water isn't as clean as it can be, but it is by and far pretty safe.  Think about this: a can of soda contains 40g of sugar.  The WHO recommends 20g for an entire day.  So once you drink a can of soda you can't eat a piece of white bread or a cookie for two days.  I'm no scientist, but a can of soda seems much more harmful than a gallon of tap water.  I don't think soda should be outlawed, but there definitely should be a prescription for it.

schultzy  http://www.unitedfilter.com/

Mikhail Markov
Mikhail Markov

My friends give me a queer look when I drink tap water.


I give them a queer look when they order soda at a restaurant, or add ice to their drinks, or brush their teeth.  They seem to forget where that water comes from.


We all know that tap water isn't as clean as it can be, but it is by and far pretty safe.  Think about this: a can of soda contains 40g of sugar.  The WHO recommends 20g for an entire day.  So once you drink a can of soda you can't eat a piece of white bread or a cookie for two days.  


I'm no scientist, but a can of soda seems much more harmful than a gallon of tap water.  I don't think soda should be outlawed, but there definitely should be a prescription for it.

Debbie Ludewig
Debbie Ludewig

I buy bottled water because it's easy but after reading this artilcle and many others like it I think I'll stick to tap water and containers that can be put in the dishwasher.  We do however recycle everything we can get our hands on.  My suggestion is to return to glass.  And I refuse to believe it would be too expensive. Nothing is too expensive if the idea is to rid our world of all the trash!!!!  And throwing our trash away on the shores of other countries is abominable!!  Out of sight, out of mind!!!!  How did our country get here, a place where the only thing that matter is the bottom line?

kimaada shelton
kimaada shelton

Why not regulate plastic water bottles with the same standard of plastic as sodas and juice and making the bottles 5 cents recyclable everywhere. Return your bottle, get your money back. Environmentally less waste, safer bottles without toxins.

Neutrinos Lee
Neutrinos Lee

I totally agree with the article above. We do not need to buy any bottled water. People just buy a bottled water from a supermarket without any careful consideration.

jason mcnair
jason mcnair

what about 67% of all u.s. tap wáter continually  treated with the carcinegic  industrial waste, sodium flouride a proven páncreas and penal gland disruptor and  inhibitor? arsenic and many other contaniments

better buy the bottled wáter in glass containers from a known tested sourse

Ashley Kilburn
Ashley Kilburn

The writer of this article hasn't seen the water in South Tucson, apparently. The water here is so bad we have to filter it for both drinking and cooking (it comes out of the sink a cloudy white color instead of the clear I was used to ) and I'm not even too sure if I should be showering with it, but I have little choice there.  My husband and I  still try to just use a water filter.  I wish I could install a more permanent water filter under the sink, but I live in an apartment for now because that is all I can afford. Though I'm still a little scared of what the water filter might be leaving behind. It might be time to move. I'm beginning to see that people were never meant to live in the desert in this great a number, if at all.

Kristen Bryant
Kristen Bryant

If your tap water tastes bad or isn't clean, it is motivation for you and your neighbors to go out and protect your watershed.  It is worth doing - you save beautiful nature and you get clean water.  We should all expect and demand delicious water from the tap.  You will learn a lot about municipal water - which needs our help and protection! - from trying to improve it.  You own it.

Catherine Sass
Catherine Sass

Well, maybe if our tap water was cleaner and didn't taste and look like a sewer we wouldn't feel the need to buy water.  Why is that such a difficult concept to understand?

Ryan Friend
Ryan Friend

The other side of the story: 


We went to bottled water after testing our tap water vs. Bottled water. We paid over $300 total for two tests because we wanted to really know the difference between Sam's Club water and our local tap water. We only did the test once. Impurity levels are bound to fluctuate over time, but we aren't rich enough to test everyday/week/month. We did it once and that was good enough for us.


The tests used a lot of scientific language so we asked a college professor of environmental science to translate it for us. 


Here were some of the yucky things we found: 

Organic and inorganic chemicals from agricultural sources (including fertilizer and animal fecal matter, nitrates, phosphates, pesticides & herbicides etc.) 

sodium (pretty yucky considering that we already eat too much and this is coming from less than pure sources... pee salt anyone? Same could be said about potassium and nitrates, too)

flouride (added during treatment) 

chlorine (different kinds, including from pools and cleaners), 

Prescription and non-prescription medications (human growth hormones, estrogen, pain killers, and others) 

illegal drugs (including methamphetamines and THC)


There were few heavy metals (a little arsenic, probably from the local chicken farms, and quite a bit of iron). 


There was an elevated number of bacteria (nothing to be alarmed at, but 100% more than in the bottled water which showed zero). Supposedly, the water treatment plant can't filter it all out and aren't even required to. Their filter is overdue for replacement, but it costs a lot to replace and is technically within the requirements, so the town just lets it sit until it becomes an emergency.


The bottled water didn't show any of that. 


We hate the waste of plastic that we contribute to, but our town doesn't even collect recyclables. But what should we do? We WANT a better option. We are politically liberal and we are huge environmentalists, but we aren't going to poison ourselves.


Because of the recent heavy rains (June 2014) out here, almost all of the water was contaminated with e.coli. A boil order was put into effect and we weren't even supposed to water the gardens or take a shower because of the health risks. They blamed the geese poop. They blamed the wildlife. They blamed anyone but the water treatment facilities. 


We don't live in BFE, or I would just move. We live in a good sized town (25,000 people). 


Clean/Pure water should be FREE. It should be a basic HUMAN RIGHT. Have you heard about the water prices protest in Detroit? Google it.


If you were to make really, truly purified and CLEAN water available FOR FREE for all Americans, regardless of where they lived, then bottled water sales would probably start to decline. Water treatment has gotten exponentially worse over the past few decades where we live. Probably everywhere in the country.


Give all the water resources to the government to purify and distribute evenly. I think they've done pretty well with the Tennessee Valley Authority (the only government-owned utilities). They couldn't do worse than the current powers-that-be. 

dinkster stuff
dinkster stuff

Also, I buy distilled 3-5 gallon jugs of bottled water for my fish tank all the time. Be sure not to lump everything together as the same.

dinkster stuff
dinkster stuff

"Some experts contend that the profits from bottled water companies could go toward improving public water"

Are they suggesting banning bottled water then imposing a 290000% (yeah that's the right number of zeros) increase in cost for tap water? Like so many things in the public sector, the revenue they expect to receive will fall well short of their estimates.

Omo Ogbe
Omo Ogbe

In the last couple of days, I have had interesting conversations about Bottled water Vs Tap water. All researches done have proven that tap water is safer than bottle water in the US because they are more regulated than the "tap water in your plastic bottles." Yes bottle water may taste better, but it is not healthier or safer, and in the long run, it is harmful to the environment.

Neena Mehta
Neena Mehta

this article has so much information I can use toward my own health.

A J
A J

@Catherine Sass Most bottled water is just filtered tap water. Simply get an at-home filter and you've done the same thing that Dasani does.

Kristen Bryant
Kristen Bryant

@Catherine Sass If your tap water tastes bad or isn't clean, it is motivation for you and your neighbors to go out and protect your watershed.  It is worth doing - you save beautiful nature and you get clean water.  We should all expect and demand delicious water from the tap.  You will learn a lot about municipal water - which needs our help and protection! - from trying to improve it.  You own it.

jason mcnair
jason mcnair

@Ryan Friend  thanks for this report,, it rings  so true and tested true that this letter alone convinces me to buy glass bottled water

Kristen Bryant
Kristen Bryant

@Ryan Friend Have you asked your water authority employees where the water comes from and what they are doing to make it cleaner?  Take your test results to your politicians.  Write a letter to the editor.  Join a group if there is one to protect your watershed.  You are right - drinking water should be clean and cheap for all - just the cost of the distribution system.

Donald Round
Donald Round

@Ryan Friend consider a good countertop filter that meets NSF standard 53 using activated carbon. that's what we use, works great, lasts 6 mos, costs about $40/year.  

Ryan Friend
Ryan Friend

@Donald Round @Ryan Friend A $40 filter will take out a lot. You're right. Let's take a look at this pragmatically, from a financial standpoint. 


My family of five (two adults and three kids under 5) goes through a case of bottled water ($3.98 for 28 bottles) every week on average. We also drink milk and juice, but no soda.


That comes down to about $210 each year. (For water)


By your standards, we are paying $170 more than we should.


But your $40 filter, while cleaning out a lot of the nasty stuff in our water, is NOT going to get it all. And it will filter less and less as the microscopic holes in it get clogged, the filter cracks, etc. Not to mention the time it takes to do ordinary care for it like installing and changing the filter (a minimum, agreed, so I won't mention it again.)


So here we have three options:

Tap water: Horrible-tasting floating fecal matter nastiness.


Filter: Reasonably clean water made from above.


Bottled: Excellently clean water made from above with a WAY MORE EXPENSIVE AND BETTER FILTERING SYSTEM.


I like to think that I pay an extra $170/year for a service that I could not or would not pay the overhead to get myself. Everyone does this for SOMETHING in their life.


To get a filter that would start to come close to doing what a commercial grade filter could do, I would have to pay around $1200 every 2.5-5 years. Keep in mind: It wouldn't be quite the same, but it would come very close.


That comes out to $240-480/year. So, I am paying just about what I could pay to have my own SUPER AWESOME FILTER SYSTEM on the low end. On the high end, I am paying less than half as much. 


But wait: I don't have to worry about installing and messing with it if it breaks down. Okay, I said that I wouldn't mention it. But it matters to me.


I could host my own blog by purchasing a server and setting it up in my house, too. But who actually does that?

Ryan Friend
Ryan Friend

Keep in mind the article says that bottled water is not any cleaner than tap. That may be true in some areas. It is not true for us. We had both tested for this very reason. We found this article to be FALSE. At least for us. But this isn't a new bit of rhetoric. This type of info has been swirling around online for more than a decade. That is exactly why we thought we would test our water (both tap and bottled) ourselves. 

Kristen Bryant
Kristen Bryant

@Ryan Friend Talk to your city officials, write letters to the editor, get them to clean up and protect your water source.


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