Last updated on October 30, 2022.
Now that I’ve terrified you about the contaminants in tap water in Part 1 and Part 2 of What’s In Your Water? you may be thinking about switching to bottled water. But which is better?
The short answer is that you are better off drinking tap water, despite the contamination problems we have in the United States.
Is Bottled Water Safer?
No. While there has always been a debate about whether tap water or bottled water is safer, the answer is that tap water is safer. Studies have discovered that most bottled water brands are from a tap water source. Some use distillation or reverse osmosis processes. But few are from actual springs or glaciers.
Tap water is always tested and the results are publicly reported. But bottled water is not necessarily held to the same standards. “Public drinking water facilities are required to test for contaminants each year and publicly disclose the results, while the bottled water industry is not required by law to disclose the results of its testing.”1
“Bottled water is not regulated by the EPA, which is responsible for the quality of water that comes out of your tap.” -Erin Brockovich2
Cost of Bottled Water vs. Tap Water
Bottled water is “one of the greatest scams of all time…bottled water is roughly 2,800 times more expensive than tap water!”3 Other estimates are slightly lower at more than 2,200 times more expensive than tap water, exhibiting the outrageous markups of bottled water. Bottled water, at these rates, costs far more per gallon than gasoline has ever cost us.4
The costs above are based on single bottles of water, the 16-20 ounce size, usually sold at the checkouts of department stores or at convenience stores. Those generally cost between $1 and $3 each. But what if you buy in bulk?
A 24-pack of Dasani 16.9-ounce bottles at Target is $5.49 where I live, or almost 23 cents per bottle. The same amount of Great Value brand bottled water at Walmart is $3.18, or just 13 cents per bottle. That seems significantly cheaper, but it isn’t when we compare it to tap water.
The Dasani water at Target costs about $1.73 per gallon of water, and the Walmart water costs about $1.00 per gallon. Tap water costs an average of $0.005 per gallon in the United States. Nationwide the average cost for municipal water is about $2.50 per thousand gallons. This is grossly less expensive than bottled water.
“The outrageous success of bottled water…is an unparalleled social phenomenon, one of the greatest marketing coups of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.” -Elizabeth Royte5
Bottled Water Sales
According to the Container Recycling Institute (CRI), between 1960 and 1970 the average person bought 200 to 250 packaged drinks each year, mostly soda and beer.6 In the 1970s, Americans purchased about 350 million gallons of bottled water. “Much of that came in the big five-gallon jugs used in office water coolers; the rest made up a niche market of mineral waters bottled from natural springs.”7 With increased interest in health and fitness during the 1980s, bottled water saw more increases in sales.
Once bottled water took hold of consumers, its sales increased exponentially. “Between 1990 and 1997, U.S. sales of bottled water shot from $115 million to $4 billion, boosted by public health messages against obesity, by multimillion-dollar ad campaigns that emphasized the perceived health benefits of bottled water…Between 1997 and 2006, U.S. sales of bottled water leaped from $4 billion to $10.8 billion, or 170 percent.”8
By 2020, we increased to purchasing 15 billion gallons of bottled water annually in the United States.9 We spend more than $16 billion per year on it. It outsells bottled soda annually. Globally, bottled water consumption grows each year, now totaling over 100 billion gallons annually.
The Marketing of Bottled Water
“In the end, it’s hard to untangle how much of bottled water’s success was due to clever marketing and ‘manufactured demand,’ and how much of it was driven by shifting consumer preferences. Health concerns, the desire for status symbols, the lure of convenience, and, yes, lots and lots of energetic marketing—all played a role.” -Robert Moss, Serious Eats10
The huge growth in bottled water sales was largely due to marketing. Many companies started advertising bottled water as either a safer option than tap, or a healthier alternative to sugary drinks. Early in the 2000s, the same era where we saw major growth in bottled water production and sales, a chairman of PepsiCo said: “The biggest enemy is tap water. . . . We’re not against water — it just has its place. We think it’s good for irrigation and cooking.”11 They were ready to market bottled water as better than tap water.
When bottled water first started selling everywhere, it was a great alternative to soda and fruity bottled drinks. Plus, people could carry the bottle around and refill it over and over, not knowing that that was dangerous. According to Serious Eats, “A tectonic shift was under way in the beverage industry, and it involved much more than water. Americans were looking for alternatives to carbonated soft drinks, and water was just one of many options—including bottled teas and lemonades, like Snapple and AriZona Iced Tea; sports drinks, like Gatorade and Powerade; and even coffee-based drinks.”12
But marketing bottled water as safer and superior to tap water was a shady tactic. Corporations were looking to make as much money as they could, and bottled tap water reaps huge profits. There has always been a barrage of advertisements from companies producing bottled water, claiming that theirs is the purest and the healthiest. “Water municipalities can’t possibly compete with these companies when it comes to advertising,” wrote Erin Brockovich.13
One example is Dasani, which is simply tap water filtered with reverse osmosis filtration. What are the minerals that enhance the water? No one exactly knows as the company does not disclose that information. “DASANI adds a variety of minerals, including salt, to create the crisp fresh taste you know and love. Although we are unable to disclose the exact quantities of minerals added to our water, we can tell you that the amounts of these minerals (including salt) are so minuscule that the US Food and Drug Administration considers them negligible or ‘dietarily insignificant.'”14 I think consumers have a right to know.
“Bottled water labels can be confusing. They portray an illusion of virtue, with images and messages printed on the bottles saying they are filled with water from pure mountain springs, while many of these bottles contain tap water in a fancy-looking to-go package.” -Erin Brockovich15
The Plastic Bottles
Historically, single beverages consisted of mostly soda and beer. More importantly, many of those were in refillable glass bottles, or at least recyclable aluminum cans. But today many beverages, especially bottled water, come in plastic bottles.
Plastics are made from petroleum and chemicals. And it takes a ton of petroleum to produce plastic bottles. It’s ridiculous that the price of oil is so high but petroleum-based plastics are produced cheaply and discarded as easily as toilet paper. That doesn’t even account for the transportation of bottled water. “Bottled water requires 2,000 times more energy than tap water to produce the same amount.”16 Worse, it takes about 22 gallons of water to produce a single pound of plastic, “which means it takes 3 liters of water to make 1 liter of bottled water,” according to Kathryn Kellogg, a zero waste expert.
“More than 17 million barrels of oil are wasted to produce the water bottles Americans buy in a typical year.” -Fran Hawthorne, Ethical Chic18
Chemicals Leaching into Bottled Water
On top of that, plastics leach chemicals into the water. Plastics are polymers derived from oil with other chemicals added to make them flexible, strong, and colorful. You can read more about chemicals in plastics in my articles here and here. The chemicals in plastic bottles, such as phthalates, bisphenols, and antimony,19 leach into the water, especially under heated conditions or from exposure to ultraviolet light (sunlight). By the time bottled water has been stored for months, or even years, it is unknown how many chemicals have leached into the water.
Reusable Water Bottles
Your own reusable water bottle should be metal or glass. Don’t buy a plastic one. Even those that advertise “BPA-Free” or that have similar disclaimers contain chemicals in the plastics that are likely harmful.
You can ask almost any restaurant, cafe, or coffee shop to fill your water bottle, and they will almost always comply. You can use water fountains or water bottle refill stations, which are now found in parks, museums, airports, libraries, and other public areas. There are global networks of refill station maps at findtap.com (best for U.S. users) and refillmybottle.com (best for global users).
“The fact is that bottling water and shipping it is a big waste of fuel, so stop already. The water that comes to your house through a pipe is good enough, and maybe better.” –Garrison Keillor, Salt Lake Tribune20
Stick With Tap Water
Today, corporations market bottled water to us in so many ways. They sell enhanced or vitamin waters, flavored waters, sparkling waters, and even luxury waters. Plastics pose health concerns about chemicals leaching into the water. There are some brands that use a “box” or carton, but those are not recyclable. Aluminum or glass are better options, but you are still paying far too much for water.
Stop buying bottled water. There are exceptions, of course. If you are in a situation without your reusable bottle and are desperate for water, buy the bottle of water. Bottled water is also extremely important for emergencies and emergency relief efforts.
While there are a lot of contaminants in tap water, stick with it anyway. Just get a good water filtration system. Corporations are bottling water with just filtered tap or “municipal” water. On the occasion you do buy bottled water, do not reuse the water bottle or leave it anywhere it can get hot, such as in a car. Just recycle it.
I hope this article has helped! Let me know if you have any questions or ideas by leaving a comment below. Thank you for reading, and please share and subscribe!