The Truth About Your Bottled Water Habit

We know, we know. We should bring a reusable water bottle wherever we go. But sometimes we forget — and sometimes we just crave the fizzy, flavored stuff. Before we know it, there we are waiting in line to buy one of Earth’s most abundant resources in a bottle made by man. Yes, it’s wasteful, but how bad is it? We teamed up with the reusable water bottle brand bobble to answer our biggest questions: Where does bottled water come from? How much waste does it create? And where do water bottles go when they die? Not to heaven — of that we’re sure.
Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
Every second of every day, 1,000 people open a plastic bottle of water in the United States. It’s a staggering statistic laid out by Peter Gleick in his book, Bottled and Sold, but it’s even more eye-opening when you consider it was written in 2010. Since then, commercial water consumption in the U.S. has increased by nearly 20%. That’s a lot of new bottles to open and a lot to throw away. In 2014, bottled water was a $13 billion business in the U.S. and the Beverage Marketing Corporation expects it to eclipse soft drinks in 2016 as the most popular packaged drink. It’s quite the ascent when you consider that 40 years ago, bottled water was not a thing. Water didn’t need to be bottled, because it didn’t need to be sold. But that changed in 1977, when the first commercial aired for bottled sparkling water in the U.S. and a need was born. Well, maybe not a need, but certainly a want. Though little more than a niche product in the '80s, bottled sparkling water became a symbol of status and the decade’s yuppies drank it up.
Illustrated by Mary Galloway.

The Bottle That Changed Everything

The real game changer came in 1990 with the introduction of the PET bottle. PET is short for polyethylene terephthalate, which is a plastic that you probably know by its street name: polyester. Mold it into just the right shape and you have a water bottle that’s cheaper than glass and clearer than the plastic bottles that preceded it. Today, more than 95% of water bottles are made of PET, which is not surprising when you consider its merits. It’s regarded as the safest plastic for food storage, does not contain carcinogenic phthalates, and has a low risk of chemicals seeping into the water, as long as the bottles are not heated up. While most bottles haven’t been left out in the hot sun, it’s nearly impossible to know where each one you buy has been. After all, water is a big business and every bottle must be sourced, purified, packaged, transported, and stored before it can be sold. And since water brands like to allure us with visions of snowcapped mountains and babbling brooks, we have to ask: Where is the water actually from?

Spring Water Vs. Tap Water

More than half of all bottled water (55% to be exact) comes from spring water. If it’s advertised as “spring water,” the FDA requires it to come from a spring — or at least from a hole drilled near a spring. And since a major aspect of branding is the origin of the water, it's filtered as little as possible and often bottled near its source. Then it's shipped — potentially around the world — to retailers. It can take as much energy to transport the bottle as it does to create it.

It can take as much energy to transport a water bottle as it does to create it.

The other 45% comes from municipal water supplies (a.k.a. tap water). That may seem like one of business’ great heists, but bottled municipal water does have a major environmental advantage: It's usually sourced closer to where it’s sold, which creates a smaller carbon footprint. And while it gets flack for being "tap water," it’s heavily purified and filtered, so it's not quite the same thing that comes out of faucets. In fact, Elizabeth Royte, the author of Bottlemania: Big Business, Local Springs, and The Battle Over America’s Drinking Water, tells me it’s filtered to the point that all minerals are stripped out and then added back via a prepared mix to each brand’s distinct taste. Spring water, on the other hand, is filtered as little as possible. Part of its brand is its location, so all the unique minerals are preserved. But this water is not overseen by the Environmental Protection Agency the way tap water is. Instead, it falls under the jurisdiction of the FDA, which has one giant loophole: If it never crosses state lines — 60% to 70% never does, Gleick writes in Bottled and Sold — it’s exempt from federal regulations and the FDA’s watchful eye. This leaves any regulation up to the state, which can vary from stricter than the FDA to nonexistent.
Illustrated by Mary Galloway.

Where Do All The Bottles Go?

Whether water is spring or tap, the energy and resources it takes to fill a plastic bottle are dwarfed by the afterlife it leads. Sixty-nine percent of PET bottles are never recycled, meaning the rest end up in landfills, in incinerators, or littered about the planet. And while the other 31% are recycled, recycling is not a form of redemption. It offers little salvation from environmental damage. It can actually create more.

Recycling is not a form of redemption.

Half of all recycled PET in the U.S. is exported, says Gleick. And that usually means being loaded on a barge in California and sent to China, where it’s turned back into just about anything but a water bottle (clothes, toys, carpet fibers, and auto parts are the usual suspects). These are then loaded onto another barge and shipped back to the United States for resale. While plant-based bottles, which debuted in 2009, have been touted as a less wasteful alternative, Royte points out that it’s not that simple. Most are only partially made of plant products, so they can’t be composted. And while they can technically be recycled, recyclers don’t like them. Their goal is to isolate PET for resale. Plant-based bottles contaminate that supply.
Illustrated by Mary Galloway.

The Problem No One Talks About

While the long-term environmental impact of plastic water bottles may be the first thing we think about, the more imminent problem is the threat they pose to our public water supply. The more water we buy, the less we rely on it. In fact, continuing this could mean the privatization of water, which would create an economic divide as wealthier people opt out of municipal supplies and lose interest in their upkeep. It’s a doomsday scenario. Right now, the EPA says that over 91% of U.S. populations served by municipal water systems have access to safe water. But that number is only going to decrease as systems age and climate change produces superstorms that damage pipes and treatment plants. Even rising sea levels could eventually overwhelm water plants. And when this happens in poorer communities, they often don’t have the money or expertise to fix them. It’s become, Royte says, both an environmental justice issue and an equity one.

Bottled water is priced like a luxury item.

Ultimately, clean water should be a basic human right. Tap water costs less than half a cent per gallon, while bottled water averaged $1.21 per gallon in 2013. This doesn’t mean that the bottled water industry can’t exist — it’s vital during emergencies — but that it's priced like a luxury item and it should be treated as one. Because, really, the best we can do to protect our public water system is rather simple: Drink from it.

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