Bottled Water Drains Natural Resources

by Emily Arnold, Earth Policy Institute © 2006

Global consumption of bottled water reached 154 billion litres (41 billion US gallons) in 2004, up 57 percent from the 98 billion litres consumed fi ve years earlier. Even in areas where tap water is safe to drink, demand for bottled water is increasing— producing unnecessary garbage and consuming vast quantities of energy. Although in the industrial world bottled water is often no healthier than tap water, it can cost up to 10,000 times more. At as much as $2.50 per litre ($10 per gallon), bottled water costs more than gasoline. The United States is the world’s leading consumer of bottled water, with Americans drinking 26 billion litres in 2004, or approximately one 8- ounce glass per person every day. Mexico has the second highest consumption, at 18 billion litres.China and Brazil follow, at close to 12 billion liters each. Italians drink the most bottled water per person, at nearly 184 liters in 2004—more than two glasses a day. 

Transportation 

In contrast to tap water, which is distributed through an energy-effi cient infrastructure, transporting bottled water long distances involves burning massive quantities of fossil fuels. Nearly a quarter of all bottled water crosses national borders to reach consumers, transported by boat, train, and truck. 

Packaging in Plastic 

Fossil fuels are also used in the packaging of water. The most commonly used plastic for making water bottles is polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which is derived from crude oil. Worldwide, some 2.7 million tons of plastic are used to bottle water each year. After the water has been consumed, the plastic bottle must be disposed of. According to the Container Recycling Institute, 86 percent of plastic water bottles used in the United States become garbage or litter. Incinerating used bottles produces toxic byproducts such as chlorine gas and ash containing heavy metals. Buried water bottles can take up to 1,000 years to biodegrade. Almost 40 percent of the PET bottles that were deposited for recycling in the United States in 2004 were actually exported, sometimes to as far away as China—adding to the resources used by this product. 

Water Shortages

In addition to the strains bottled water puts on our ecosystem through its production and transport, the rapid growth in this industry means that water extraction is concentrated in communities where bottling plants are located. For example, water shortages near beverage bottling plants have been reported in Texas and in the Great Lakes region of North America. Farmers, fi shers, and others who depend on water for their livelihoods suffer from the concentrated water extraction when water tables drop quickly. Studies show that consumers associate bottled water with healthy living. But bottled water is not guaranteed to be any healthier than tap water. In fact, roughly 40 percent of bottled water begins as tap water; often the only difference is added minerals that have no marked health benefi t. The French Senate even advises people who drink bottled mineral water to change brands frequently because the added minerals are helpful in small amounts but may be dangerous in higher doses. 

$100 Billion Would Treat Water For the World 

There is no question that clean, affordable drinking water is essential to the health of our global community. But bottled water is not the answer in the developed world, nor does it solve problems for the 1.1 billion people who lack a secure water supply. Improving and expanding existing water treatment and sanitation systems is more likely to provide safe and sustainable sources of water over the long term. In villages, rainwater harvesting and digging new wells can create more affordable sources of water. The United Nations Millennium Development Goal for environmental sustainability calls for halving the proportion of people lacking sustainable access to safe drinking water by 2015. Meeting this goal would require doubling the $15 billion a year that the world currently spends on water supply and sanitation. While this amount may seem large, it pales in comparison to the estimated $100 billion spent each year on bottled water. 

http://www.earth-policy.org/ See Also: Lester R. Brown, Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006).

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[From WS March/April 2006]

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