Tap Water vs. Bottled Water

Last updated on October 30, 2022.

A glass of tap water next to a plastic bottle of water.
Image by Alexander Lesnitsky from Pixabay.

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

Gallon bottle of distilled water,
Gallon bottle of distilled water; note that the source was “municipal water.” Photo by me.
Gallon bottle of distilled water, the label.
Gallon bottle of distilled water; note that the source was “municipal water.” Photo by me.

Cost of Bottled Water vs. Tap Water

Kitchen faucet with running water.
Photo by Imani on Unsplash.

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

Shelves of bottled water at a grocery store.
Photo by me.

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

Dasani (Coca-Cola) advertisement, screenshot taken from their website. Dasani is tap water filtered with reverse osmosis.
Dasani (Coca-Cola) advertisement, screenshot taken from their website.

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

Many plastic water bottles with white caps.
Photo by Jonathan Chng on Unsplash.

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

Cases of Dannon bottled water outside with forklifts in background, in Florida. Plastic leaches toxins when exposed to heat. These are sitting outdoors at a Florida warehouse, where it is hot year round.
Cases of Dannon bottled water, in Florida. Plastic leaches toxins when exposed to heat. These are sitting outdoors at a Florida warehouse, where it is hot year round. Image by David Mark from Pixabay.

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

Four types of reusable water bottles, two blue and two stainless steel colored.
Image by NatureFriend from Pixabay.

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).

Water bottle filling station at the Oregon Convention Center, Portland, Oregon. Two drinking fountains and a bottle refill section behind the fountains.
Water bottle filling station at the Oregon Convention Center, Portland, Oregon. Photo by Jeremy Jeziorski on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0).
Water bottle filling station at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Drinking fountain at right and bottle fill section at left.
Water bottle filling station at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Photo by Taylor Notion, used with permission.

“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 KeillorSalt 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!

 

Footnotes:

The Packaging Industry and How We Can Consume Differently, Part 4

Last updated August 21, 2021.

Plastic packaging waste from my household, February 2017. Bottles, fruit container, yogurt cup, plastic bags, etc. Photo by me
Plastic packaging waste from my household, February 2017. I started doing trash audits, inspired by Beth Terry at myplasticfreelife.com and I realized how much plastic, mostly in the form of packaging, that I had to start eliminating. Photo by me

In my first article about packaging, I told you about packaging history, current problems with packaging, and greenwashing. I wrote about the misconceptions surrounding the terms biodegradable and compostable in my second article. In my third article, we explored bioplastics. Today, we will look at some other practices companies sometimes use to reduce their carbon footprint.

Image of a footprint with "CO2" over a map of the world
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Lightweighting

The demand for consumer goods is on the rise, especially with the population exponentially increasing. One way companies save money is to practice lightweighting, and sometimes it can reduce their environmental impact. However, this practice can also be harmful to the environment.

What is lightweighting? “A packaging trend wherein conventional packaging is replaced with a lighter-weight alternative and/or the overall amount of material used in packaging is reduced,” as defined in The Future of Packaging.1

Lighter weight items are cheaper to ship, saving companies money on fuel which also creates fewer emissions. But creating lighter packaging means replacing conventional packaging, such as glass, with lighter weight alternatives, like plastic. This has made plastic the preferred material and unfortunately, much of that plastic is not recycled.

Another lightweighting method is making the materials thinner. PET bottles and aluminum cans use about 30% less material than they did in the 1980s. Lush Cosmetics worked with their bottling manufacturer to make their bottles 10% thinner, and this saved nearly 13,500 pounds of plastic in 2016.

“Although lightweighting gains have been made for all containers as a result of these technological efficiencies, these gains are overshadowed by huge increases in per capita consumption and total beverage sales (especially for bottled water…sports drinks and energy drinks) as well as stagnant or shrinking recycling rates. All of these factors lead to vastly more container material” not getting recycled. –Bottled Up: Beverage Container Recycling Stagnates2

Convenience Items

Lightweighting makes consumer goods cheaper and easier to access, especially in the form of convenience items. Think about coffee pods, applesauce pouches, and fresh vegetables ready to be steamed in plastic. But at what cost does this convenience come? This packaging is not recyclable in most municipalities and goes straight to landfills. Some can be sent to a specialty recycler, like Terracycle, but that is not a long-term practical solution.

Example of Coffee pod or “K-Cup”. I used these for several years before I realized the harm they were causing.
Example of an applesauce pouch, now also sold as smoothie blends and yogurt pouches. I purchased these for several years before I realized how plastic was damaging our environment.

“This is lightweighting’s biggest problem: no economic recycling model has yet emerged due to the technical challenges in processing and recovering the base materials,” -Chris Daly, Vice President of Environmental Sustainability, Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa, PepsiCo3

Water

Sales of bottled water, especially in plastic, now exceed those of other non-alcoholic bottled beverages in the US. Here is a graph that exhibits the rapid growth:

Graph of plastic bottle water sales
Graph from the Container Recycling Institute

A few companies now sell bottled water in aluminum, including the brands Open Water4 and CanO Water.5 In summer 2019, PepsiCo announced that they would stop selling Bubly seltzer water in plastic bottles and switch to aluminum cans. They also planned to test switching Aquafina to aluminum cans.6

Replacing plastic with aluminum can be a positive packaging change. This is not a new idea, as brands like LaCroix water have been in aluminum for years. Aluminum is 100% recyclable, assuming they are free from plastic film lining, and almost 75% of all aluminum produced in the U.S. is still in use today, according to the Aluminum Association.7 Recycling aluminum uses significantly less energy because it is heated at a much lower temperature than using bauxite, the virgin raw material used to make aluminum.

However, the real solution is to drink tap water and carry your own reusable metal or glass water container.

Image of Open Water aluminum bottles

“Bottled water is healthy and convenient, but single-use plastic bottles are wreaking havoc on our environment, and especially our oceans.”8

Products in Cartons

Great Value Organic 2% milk in a blue, purple, and white carton
Milk carton

Cartons are another example of lightweighting, as the containers are lighter to transport. There are two types: cartons like those that contain milk or orange juice, are paperboard lined with a plastic film (polyethylene). Milk cartons haven’t been wax coated since the 1940s, as noted by Beth Terry.9 The other, called aseptic or shelf-stable containers, are multilayered with paperboard, plastic film (polyethylene), and aluminum. Most of the latter are made by the packaging company Tetra Pak. Common examples of products sold in cartons include shelf-stable milk, broth, coconut water, and juice boxes.

However, a carton’s end of life is usually highly problematic because they are multi-layered and it is expensive to separate the materials. In addition, some polyethylenes contain toxins linked to human health problems.

Diagrams of cartons and the layers of materials.
Diagrams from the Carton Council

Recyclability is Poor

Cartons are recyclable in theory, but it is not common, in large part because it is difficult to separate the layers. The recycler shreds the cartons, sanitizes them, and ties the shreds into bales. A pulp mill that has the appropriate machinery can buy the bales from the recycler, and the polyethylene coating must be separated from the paper and strained off. The plastics can be shipped to a plastics manufacturer for re-use, but usually, it is simply disposed of. The shredded cartons can then be reprocessed into pulp for paper.10 That’s a lot of work for a single type of waste, and most of the time these are landfilled or incinerated.

The Carton Council

The Carton Council advertises cartons as recyclable. However, as attorney and sustainability expert Jennie Romer noted, this is an unqualified claim. The Federal Trade Commission’s definition of recycling requires that an entire package be recyclable to be labeled as such. Cartons are not fully recyclable since the plastic film and aluminum foil layer are usually discarded. “A qualified claim of ‘only the paper layer is recyclable’ would be more accurate.”11

The Carton Council also asserts that if you cannot recycle them where you live, you can ship them at your own cost to certain facilities.12 However, I cleaned and saved cartons from non-dairy milk and broth for several months and found it was cost-prohibitive to ship. I found this discouraging and impractical.

We should avoid buying all products in these containers for both environmental and health reasons. Remember, that even if your local recycler “accepts” these items for recycling, they are often landfilled. The paper in these cartons might break down in the environment but the toxins in the plastic will infect the land and water for decades or longer.

Swanson chicken broth in a shelf stable carton
Swanson chicken broth in a shelf-stable carton

Solutions

We have power as consumers. Companies want to sell us their goods, presumably more than they want to sell us the packaging. So avoid purchasing products in packaging that you don’t like or support.

Instead, purchase items in bulk in your own containers, or buy goods in metal or glass instead of plastic or cartons. Buy a reusable beverage container to avoid buying drinks in plastic and avoid convenience packaging since it is rarely recyclable.

Thanks for reading, and please subscribe! In my next post, I’ll explain how the manufacturers should become part of the solution.

 

“If you want to eliminate waste in your life – and in the world – the answers will always come down to one simple thing: consume differently.” -Tom Szaky

Footnotes: