The Truth about Bottled Water

Last Call

Growing up in Zurich, Switzerland, I was fortunate to have public drinking fountains strategically placed on my walk to school, on my bike ride to the soccer field or when accompanying my mother to the farmers market. To be exact, there are 1,200 water fountains in operation still today.

So the idea of paying for drinking water is quite foreign to me and I stare with disbelief at consumers who schlepp cartons full of plastic containers filled with filtered tap water to the trunk of their cars.

I’m wondering how long the water has been sitting in non-refrigerated warehouses and trucks before it actually gets consumed. Where does the obsession of buying drinking water in this country come from?

The average American consumes 21 gallons of bottled water per year, making it the second largest beverage sector behind flavored carbonated sodas and driving huge profits for the companies that manufacture and distribute it.

Bottled water has become a $100 billion-a-year global industry.

Here are a few issues I have with this trend.
  • Tap water in the United States is perfectly safe, and it is cost-effective. It’s not free, but compare paying $1.75 per 1,000 gallons provided by the public water utility versus $1.75 for 1 gallon of water in a plastic jar.
  • And test after test has proven that there is absolutely no evidence that bottled water is safer than tap water.
  • In fact, in several water testing comparisons conducted by ABC and The New York Times, among others, tap water never came in last. For an amusing take on tap water, search “Penn and Teller water bottle survey” on YouTube.
  • Bottled water isn’t always better for us, and it certainly isn’t better for our planet. The manufacturing of the plastic bottles takes three times as much water as filling each bottle, in addition to 17 million barrels of oil.
  • It is estimated that of the 50 billion bottles of water sold in the U.S., only 12 percent are recycled.
  • 50 percent of all bottled water sold in the U.S. is actually just packaged tap water.

By the early 1970s, the consumption of bottled water in the U.S. was minimal because consumers rightfully trusted tap water, which when served with a few cubes of ice made a perfect thirst quencher. Enter the beverage giants such as Perrier, Pepsi, Nestle and others, who through shrewd marketing tactics managed to make consumers believe that somehow, bottled water tastes better or has some “other” imaginary health benefit — and all cool and smart-looking people running around in their sweat pants are constantly holding a plastic bottle in their hands.

An example of how “Big Water” operates can be illustrated using a recent Washington Post article in which Lisa Rein describes the efforts of lobbyists trying to stop 19 national parks that have banned the sale of water in plastic bottles to cut down on littering and trash. Instead, the parks are encouraging visitors to bring or buy refillable water containers (which the parks sell for as low as $2.50) and use the refilling system in the park to stay hydrated.

From a capitalistic point of view, the bottled water industry is a stroke of genius. You take something that is readily available at low cost: Tap water. You pour it through some unnecessary filters and fill it in cheap and non-reusable plastic containers, slap a few colorful labels on it (preferably with mountains) and resell it for a 100 or 1,000 times more that it cost to produce.

From a marketing point of view, I’m amazed how a whole country in the timeframe of 40 years can be manipulated into paying for something that used to be (almost) free — and we don’t even think twice about doing so. But we are not alone. Mexico, Brazil and China are closing in on adapting what is now regarded as a sign of a civilized society: The consumption of drinking water not from the tap to the glass, but elevated to a new status by filling the glass from a container.

From an environmental point of view, the bottled water craze is a huge tragedy.

On a local level, I’m disgusted that people pollute our beaches by carelessly leaving plastic bottles behind and endanger the marine life in our waters. On a global level, it is a total waste of resources to produce, distribute and deal with the resulting waste.

For my part, I invest in high-quality, double insulated stainless drinking containers that are endlessly refillable.


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