drinking, still I thirst: the impact of bottled water
by Casey Fischl
Bottled water consumption has steadily increased over the last few decades, reaching an all-time high in 2017 with 13.7 billion gallons of bottled water purchased in the United States. The consumption of bottled water has surpassed all other products in the beverage industry, including soda and beer. Americans did not always rely on bottled water to stay hydrated; per capita consumption of bottled water in the United States went from 1.6 gallons in 1976 to 42.1 gallons in 2017. With the bottled water industry booming, consumers should re-evaluate the necessity and quality of this product.
Californians should especially be concerned about the growing bottled water industry. The biggest competitors in the U.S. market source their water from some of the most drought-prone states, primarily California. Nestlé, one of the world’s top bottled water producers, sources its Arrowhead branded water from the San Bernardino Mountains in Southern California, even during drought periods.
Nestlé pays the U.S. Forest Service $524 for their permit to collect fresh water from public lands, yet the company sold $7.7 billion of bottled water across the globe in 2015. The California State Water Board has said that Nestlé may only have rights to 8.5 millions gallons of the 62.6 million gallons of water that the company annually extracts from the San Bernardino mountains. An investigation conducted by the Desert Sun revealed that the National Forest Service as well as California state regulatory agencies have allowed Nestlé to access this public land with little oversight and a permit that expired in 1988. Since 1988, Nestlé has continued to pump tens of millions of gallons of water without any analysis on the impacts on local wildlife and statewide ecosystems. The water captured from this natural system means less water for ecosystems located downstream. In 2017, the Forest Service announced that it would review Nestlé’s permit for the first time in 30 years.
The rise in the consumption of water as a branded commodity is largely due to marketing campaigns by bottled water companies. Due to misleading branding tactics, bottled water has gotten the reputation of being pure and pristine and tap water is perceived as unsafe or inconsistent in quality, even though the standards for regulating tap water in the United States are higher than regulations on bottled water. In fact, the US Federal Food and Drug Administration allows bottled water companies to market their products as spring water, even if the water they are bottling has been treated with chemicals or brought to the surface using a pumped well. And in many cases, bottled water companies are simply bottling municipal water without any additional filtration.
Bottled water has many other negative environmental and health consequences. Although plastic bottles are recyclable, approximately 80% of them end up in landfills. Even if a plastic bottle is appropriately discarded in a recycle bin, it can still end up in a landfill. Plastic does not naturally break down, and when it finally does decompose after 450 years, it releases toxic chemicals.
Bottling water also requires more water and additional resources to finally show up in your grocery store. The Pacific Institute reported that for every liter of bottled water consumed, two liters of water were used in the production process. The production of the polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic that bottled water is sold in is also very energy intensive. The 13.7 billion gallons of bottled water produced in 2017 required more than 177 billion megajoules of energy, in the United States alone. This means that the bottled water industry contributes a significant amount to carbon emissions through PET manufacturing and international transportation required for the consumption of bottled water.
Additionally, the bottle itself can pose health risks. The PET most commonly used in bottled water is safe when used once. However, if these bottles are reused, chemicals like DEHA, a potential carcinogen, and BBP, a potential hormone disruptor, can leach into the water. There are regulatory standards for public tap water to limit phthalates, however, bottled water has no legal limits for this potentially dangerous chemical.
Public concern over the quality of tap water is not without reason. A 2017 report from the Natural Resources Defense Council exposed that more than 18,000 public water providers violated federal protections in 2015. Poor water quality exists in disproportionate levels in low-income, minority communities. A high profile violation, Flint, Michigan, exemplifies the environmental injustice that exists in the United States. The residents of Flint, Michigan still lack access to safe, affordable drinking water. For years now, people have had to purchase bottled water for drinking, cooking, washing, and bathing. This is a failure of the local government to act as stewards for a critical public good.
Despite the issues facing public water providers, experts explain that bottled water is not the answer. Bottled water is sold at 2,900 times the price of tap water, a profit that some experts argue could easily be used to improve public water supplies and infrastructure. If we continue to excessively consume bottled water and ignore our public water systems, soon accessibility to safe water will become even more reliant on high socioeconomic status. Federal and State agencies must protect and regulate water to maintain its abundance and quality as a public commodity.
*The post title, “drinking, still i thirst,” comes from the poem “The Water Diviner” by Dannie Abse.