While one, two, or three dollars seems a reasonable price to pay for to quench your thirst, when purchasing a bottle of water, you are paying about 1,900 times more for the water within it than you would otherwise pay for tap water. When sold in a bottle, water costs more per gallon than gasoline. And here’s the kicker: many popular brands of bottled water are just filtered tap water, as described in this CNN News Report from 2008.
A 2011 study done by Environmental Working Group outlines three primary questions in regards to potable water:
1) Where did the water come from?
2) How was the water treated prior to being bottled and sold?
3) How pure is the water?
While there is a widespread assumption that bottled water is more sanitary than tap water, this is not the case, as has been repeatedly proven in testing. Suppliers of bottled water spend millions of dollars on fancy labeling and advertisements to promote their brand as somehow “healthier” or “more natural” than tap water, when, in fact, the very opposite may be true. For instance, in 2006, Fiji, one of the most expensive bottled waters sold in the US, ran a magazine ad campaign with the tagline The label says Fiji because it’s not bottled in Cleveland. Offended, the city of Cleveland took comparison tests and discovered that Cleveland tap water was actually of a higher quality than Fiji brand bottled water. Fiji water contained trace amount of arsenic, while Cleveland’s water had none. With the municipal water that comes out of your sink, there are specific and publically available answers to these questions. Laws and governmental regulations dictate and oversee the provision of water, ensuring its safety. Bottled water, however, is not subject to the regulations that protect the cleanliness of tap water.
A 2009 survey done by Environmental Working Group revealed that out of 188 commercially available brands of tap water, only two revealed answers to all three primary questions posed above about the water they were selling. Nine out of ten of the top-selling bottled water companies in the United States did not provide information on where their water is coming from, in terms of geographic location, the method used to treat the water, or any contact information for consumers interested in obtaining more information about the water they were drinking.
And that’s just regarding the contents of the bottle. The bottle itself is a different story entirely. The series of processes regarding the manufacturing, consuming and disposing of plastic bottles is harmful both to human health and the natural environment, which are inextricably linked.
Plastic bottles, the majority of them at least, are made using petroleum, a nonrenewable oil that must be extracted from the earth via drilling, a practice hazardous both to the natural environment being drilled and surrounding it, as well as to the health of the human beings paid to drill, a job that is physically dangerous, exhausting and unsafe, and not well-paid.
The most common component of plastic bottles is polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which, according to the Sierra Club, generates more than 100 times more toxic emissons than an equivalent amount of glass, and takes up to 1,000 years to decompose. While some more environmentally progressive companies use “bioplastics,” or plastic made from plant materials. This is often printed on the label of bottles produced this way; many bottles claim to be made either entirely or some percentage of bioplastics. This method is better for the environment because it does not require the use of a non-renewable energy source, and the decomposition rate is significantly faster, minimizing time spent in landfills. However, the rate at which these bottles decompose is a little too rapid; if left on the shelf for too long, the bottles will leak and become deformed. It must also be noted that even if this decomposition problem were to be solved, the production of bioplastics is not a panacea for the environmental issues of PET plastic; bioplastics require extensive farmland that could otherwise be used to grow food, the plants used require a large amount of water during their growth period, and the manufacturing of the plants into plastics requires many harmful chemicals. In short, while bioplastics are less harmful for the environment than plastics composed of PET, they are still damaging.
Thus far, I have emphasized the role of the US consumer in the bottled water industry, but it is not exclusively an American market. PBS’ web series P.O.V.’s Borders discusses the bottled water phenomenon and informs us that there are between fifty and one hundred thousand different bottled water labels across the globe. France, for instance, is home to 350 different water bottle labels. New-York based artist Nancy Drew studied hundreds of said labels and then did a series of paintings based on them. She explains her research as “like a multicultural study of graphic artist,” explaining that “all of [the different labels] are portraying the same thing, water, but each culture has their own way of seeing it.” (These paintings, entitled The Water Series, are unfortunately not available on her website.) The issue of bottled water and sanitation quality is a global problem as well; just last Friday, the government of Pakistan rescinded the licenses of 30 different bottled water manufacturers, with two more firms having their licenses revoked just today.
If you have a bottle of water in your near vicinity, take a look at the label. Does it tell you where the water comes from? Does it tell you how the water has been treated? Is there any information regarding sanitation testing of any kind? Does it give you any contact information for you to call and ask these questions?