From coast to coast, the United States has some of the finest supplies of drinking water in the world. But you’d hardly know it to judge from the number of people toting around bottles of designer H2O.
According to the Beverage Marketing Corporation, an industry research and consulting firm based in New York City, Americans drank more than 8.2 billion gallons of bottled water in 2006 — nearly double the amount consumed by the second-place country. That’s 28 gallons per person, or half a gallon a week. We drink more bottled water than milk, coffee or beer. Only carbonated soft drinks have a bigger market share.
Beverage Marketing estimates that Americans spent nearly $11 billion in 2006 on a product they could have had practically for free. State and local governments spend trillions — yes trillions — of dollars to deliver clean, fresh water to homes and businesses. The water that comes out of your kitchen sink routinely wins taste tests over bottled water and costs a tiny fraction of the $1.64 a gallon that Americans spend on the bottled stuff, according to ACNielsen, an international market research firm based in Illinois.
Testing the waters: Is tap water really safer?
Plain old tap water may be safer, too, because its purity is tested far more often than bottled water. Federal law requires municipalities to test the purity of their drinking water at least once a day — and in most cases, multiple times a day, says Dale Kemery, spokesman for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which sets the regulations for public drinking water.
The EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule of 1991 requires testing at customer taps because lead (which isn’t usually in source water) can enter water through corrosion of lead-bearing materials that may be present in service lines and home plumbing. Systems must work to ensure that the corrosivity of their water is minimized to keep lead from leaching.
“We’re talking about flowing water,” Kemery says. “It’s a constantly changing situation, so we’re constantly sampling it.” The frequency of testing depends on the size of the water system, but in larger cities, Kemery says the public water supply is analyzed hundreds or even thousands of times per day.
EPA regulations require drinking water to be tested as it enters the local distribution system as well as at various points along the way in order to protect against contamination in the aquifers. Every public system must also report the quality of its water to the public at least once a year. (For a copy of your city’s Consumer Confidence Report, call the EPA at 800-426-4791, or check www.epa.gov/safewater.)
Bottled water is regulated as a food product — not by the EPA but by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which requires bottlers to test their water for bacterial contaminants just once a week, according to FDA spokesman Mike Herndon. Some regulations on bottled water are not as stringent as those on public drinking water.
For example, the FDA permits bottled water to contain trace amounts of E. coli and/or fecal coliform bacteria, while “the maximum level of bacteria in public drinking water is zero,” Kemery says.
Are all bottled waters the same?
Not all bottled waters are created equal. Members of the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA) — an Alexandria, Va.-based trade group that represents both small and large bottlers and major brands such as Evian, Crystal Geyser, Poland Springs and Deer Park — must meet standards that are stricter than the FDA’s. IBWA membership requires zero tolerance for E. coli and fecal coliform bacteria — just like the EPA guidelines for tap water. These companies must also submit to a surprise annual inspection from an independent third party.
“We’re trying to raise the standards for bottled water quality,” says Joe Doss, the IBWA’s president and CEO. “We’ve asked the FDA to make the E. coli standard a zero-tolerance policy.” Doss adds that there are 31 substances for which IBWA regulations are more stringent than both the FDA’s and EPA’s.
But regulation without enforcement loses a lot of punch. In this area, tap water again receives better marks from just about every consumer and environmental organization.
State governments are responsible for implementing regulations on public drinking water, while the FDA does its own policing — and very little of it. “The FDA has less than one full-time staff person enforcing bottled water regulations,” says Victoria Kaplan, organizing director of Food & Water Watch, a national consumer advocacy group in Washington, D.C.
What’s more, bottlers do not have to reveal the results of their bacterial tests; they’re only required to keep the data on file for two years in case an FDA inspector visits.
“The FDA is constantly understaffed and underfunded and relies on bottled water companies to police themselves,” says Gigi Kellett, director of Think Outside the Bottle, a Boston-based campaign to restore consumer confidence in public water systems. “When there’s a problem with our public water, we know it right away because it’s so rigorously tested.” By contrast, Kellett notes, a contaminant in bottled water could go undetected for longer.
The sources of bottled water
Bottled water companies spend millions of dollars to persuade consumers that their product comes from pristine mountain springs and is therefore cleaner or purer than tap water. But in reality, many bottled waters are simply tap water that’s been filtered (which, ironically, can remove the beneficial fluoride — although some firms also add fluoride back into their water) and packaged.
In July, PepsiCo announced that its Aquafina bottles would spell out the fact that the water inside it comes from the same place as local tap water. Dasani, bottled by Coca-Cola, is also nothing more than filtered tap water. This filtering process “doesn’t make [the water] any healthier,” says Aquafina spokesman Dave Dececco. It merely removes salts, chlorides and other dissolved solids that may affect taste. Together, these two brands make up a quarter of the bottled water market.
Acknowledging the folly of buying bottles of filtered versions of their own tap water, municipalities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Minneapolis and Salt Lake City have recently prohibited the use of city funds to purchase bottled water.
“For a long time, I’ve viewed [bottled water] as a huge marketing scam,” says Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson. The City Council of Ann Arbor, Mich., passed a similar resolution earlier this year, while New York City is spending $700,000 to promote its tap water (which, reportedly, many Manhattan diners often request by name).
These governments are publicly acknowledging what water industry experts have long known: that our public drinking water is safe and healthy. The water flowing from San Francisco’s taps, for example, comes from snowmelt into the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir near Yosemite National Park. It’s so pure that it passes all contamination tests without even being filtered.
Flowing to market: Bringing bottles to consumers
San Francisco's tap water comes from a natural downhill flow from the Sierras into the aqueducts that feed the city’s homes and businesses. Bottled water, on the other hand, requires a great number of resources to make that same journey in petroleum-derived containers.
According to the Container Recycling Institute, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., it took 18 million barrels of crude oil to make 50 billion polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic bottles in 2005 alone. That process released a staggering 800,000 metric tons of carbon into the environment.
Trucking those bottles to market entails even more use of petroleum and more carbon emissions, especially when that water comes from far-flung places like Europe or Fiji. In July, 2007, ABC News estimated that 2 ounces of oil were consumed in bringing each 1-liter bottle of water from France to Chicago — and that doesn’t count the petroleum used to make the bottle.
But everyone recycles! Don't they?
Less than a quarter of plastic bottles get recycled. “Only half the U.S. has access to curbside recycling,” says Betty McLaughlin, executive director of the nonprofit D.C.-based Container Recycling Institute. She adds that even in communities where recycling facilities exist, people usually drink bottled water when they’re away from home and on the go — and much less likely to recycle the bottle.
Statewide bottle bills — in which consumers pay a deposit (usually 5 cents) on beverage containers — are one of the most successful methods of improving recycling rates, but the IBWA has lobbied against them. Just four states (Oregon, Hawaii, California and Maine) charge deposits on water bottles in addition to beer and soda containers.
The IBWA also claims immunity from the environmental issue, pointing to evidence that bottled water sales are merely displacing purchases of sugary drinks like soda. Gary Hemphill, managing director of the Beverage Marketing Corporation, agrees, noting that the greatest growth in water sales has come in single-serving bottles. Bulk sales of large jugs, which consumers usually buy as a substitute for tap water, have grown more slowly.
“Our competition is not tap water — it’s other beverages like teas and carbonated soft drinks,” says the IBWA’s Doss. “We have research that indicates consumers choose both tap and bottled water. They may choose bottled water to eliminate calories from their diets.”
Doss also trumpets his industry’s green efforts. “We take seriously our responsibility to be good stewards of the environment.” He notes that plastic water bottles are already 100% recyclable and that several bottlers have recently switched to a lighter bottle that uses 40% less resin.
So what does it all mean? Well, the choice between bottled and tap depends largely on where you are. On the road, at a convenience store or at a stadium where you’d otherwise choose something fattening, bottled water is a healthful alternative. But at home, at work or in restaurants — anywhere tap water is readily available — the house brand is best.
“There’s no reason bottled water and tap water can’t coexist,” says Aquafina’s Dececco. “When you’re out and about, bottled water is more convenient. When you’re home, there’s absolutely no reason not to drink tap water.”