Thursday, July 26, 2007

The cost of bottled water

I blogged earlier about avoiding bottled water for stewardship and ethical reasons. The latest issue of Fast Company has a gripping article about the bottled water industry, "Message in a Bottle," by Charles Fishman (author of the excellent book The Wal-Mart Effect). A blog post from summarizes the main points:
  • Last year, Americans spent $15 billion on bottled water -- more than we spent on movie tickets. This year that is expected to be $16 billion.
  • Water is basically free, and for now more or less abundant in most of the U.S.
  • Buying bottled water is essentially buying convenience (and bending to marketing messages).
  • 24% of the bottled water Americans buy is repackaged tap water created by Coke and Pepsi.
  • Americans drink more bottled water than milk, or coffee, or beer.
  • Americans went through about 50 billion plastic water bottles last year, 167 for each person.
  • Americans throw 38 billion water bottles a year into landfills. (Over $1 billion worth of plastic which could have been recycled -- only 1/4 of all the bottles are recycled by consumers).
  • It's easier for most Americans to get as much drinking water from Fiji as they want, than it is for over half the people of Fiji, where the water is bottled yet safe drinking water for the local population is scarce.
  • If the water we use at home were to cost what even the cheapest bottled water costs, our monthly water bills would run $9,000. (Point is: we pay a lot for what is available for almost nothing.)
  • Most of the world's bottled water is dominated by four companies: Pepsi, Coke, Danone, and Nestle.
  • Within a decade, American consumption of bottled water is expected to surpass soda. Maybe that's a good thing. Is that a good thing?
  • One out of six people in the world does not have a safe, dependable source of drinking water. That's a billion people.
  • Each day, 3,000 children die from diseases caught from tainted water.
This paragraph jumped out at me: "We buy bottled water because we think it's healthy. Which it is, of course: Every 12-year-old who buys a bottle of water from a vending machine instead of a 16-ounce Coke is inarguably making a healthier choice. But bottled water isn't healthier, or safer, than tap water. Indeed, while the United States is the single biggest consumer in the world's $50 billion bottled-water market, it is the only one of the top four--the others are Brazil, China, and Mexico--that has universally reliable tap water. Tap water in this country, with rare exceptions, is impressively safe."

And this line: "If you bought and drank a bottle of Evian, you could refill that bottle once a day for 10 years, 5 months, and 21 days with San Francisco tap water before that water would cost $1.35."

When I finished reading the article, my immediate response was to fill up a pitcher with tap water and put it in the fridge. And I had a nice glass of cold water with my lunch.


joannmski said...

You know, I understand the wanting to do the right thing part. But, bottled water actually does taste better than tap water...

Anonymous said...

It's not really accurate to say that tap water is just as healthy as bottled water. Depending on where you live, bottled water often IS much healthier than tap water. My tap water is frequently full of chlorine, which agravates medical conditions for both my husband and me. You may be blessed to have healthy free tap water, but be careful not to assume that everyone else has this just because you have it. Most people actually live in places with problematic tap water.

Al Hsu said...

Well, obviously a lot varies from place to place and much depends on your local municipality. Drinking bottled water for health reasons may well be a legitimate rationale if local tap water is not adequately safe for you. But even there, it's probably better and less wasteful to use larger bulk sources of water rather than the individualized disposable water bottles.

One effect of the bottled water market is that governments many not be investing as many resources into water utilities, purification, etc. And I've read some articles about dentists' concerns that people aren't drinking enough fluoridated tap water.

A related global justice issue is whether privatization of water supply helps or hurts local communities. The track record of privatized water is spotty. A lot of issues here!

But for the average consumer, it's a fairly simple stewardship question - does bottled water provide a significant benefit or advantage over tap water, and is it worth the financial and environmental cost? At the end of the day, for many of us, there's no real reason to buy bottled water.

Here's what the New York Times says in "In Praise of Tap Water":

Here are the hard, dry facts: Yes, drinking water is a good thing, far better than buying soft drinks, or liquid candy, as nutritionists like to call it. And almost all municipal water in America is so good that nobody needs to import a single bottle from Italy or France or the Fiji Islands. Meanwhile, if you choose to get your recommended eight glasses a day from bottled water, you could spend up to $1,400 annually. The same amount of tap water would cost about 49 cents.

Next, there’s the environment. Water bottles, like other containers, are made from natural gas and petroleum. The Earth Policy Institute in Washington has estimated that it takes about 1.5 million barrels of oil to make the water bottles Americans use each year. That could fuel 100,000 cars a year instead. And, only about 23 percent of those bottles are recycled, in part because water bottles are often not included in local redemption plans that accept beer and soda cans. Add in the substantial amount of fuel used in transporting water, which is extremely heavy, and the impact on the environment is anything but refreshing.

Tap water may now be the equal of bottled water, but that could change. The more the wealthy opt out of drinking tap water, the less political support there will be for investing in maintaining America’s public water supply. That would be a serious loss. Access to cheap, clean water is basic to the nation’s health.

Some local governments have begun to fight back. Earlier this summer, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom prohibited his city’s departments and agencies from buying bottled water, noting that San Francisco water is “some of the most pristine on the planet.” Salt Lake City has issued a similar decree, and New York City recently began an advertising campaign that touted its water as “clean,” “zero sugar” and even “stain free.”

The real change, though, will come when millions of ordinary consumers realize that they can save money, and save the planet, by turning in their water bottles and turning on the tap.