In almost every home in America, fresh drinking water can be obtained straight from the tap, almost for free. Yet Americans drink over $15 billion dollars’ worth of bottled water every year. That’s more than the total annual revenue from movie ticket sales in America.
When I was young, we got water from the tap and from water fountains. But today, bottled water is everywhere and some people won’t drink water if it’s not from a plastic bottle. Why is this? Is bottled water that much better for you? While bottled water may seem like a convenient and healthier option, a closer examination reveals that our obsession with bottled water may be less healthy for you and has a cost beyond the price tag most Americans are not aware of.
Is Bottled Water Healthier?
Marketing by bottled water companies would have us believe that bottled water is purer and therefore better for you than tap water. But one of the most compelling arguments in favor of tap water is the rigorous regulatory standards it must adhere to. Municipal tap water is subject to stringent testing and regulation by government agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the United States. These regulations ensure that tap water meets specific safety standards and undergoes regular monitoring for contaminants.
On the other hand, the quality of bottled water is not always guaranteed. Despite perceptions of purity, bottled water is not necessarily safer than tap water. In fact, studies have shown that some bottled water brands contain contaminants that exceed allowable limits.
For example, in 2006 Fiji Water (Fiji water comes from an artesian aquifer on the island of Fiji) ran an ad campaign that said, “The label says Fiji because it’s not bottled in Cleveland,” basically taking a jab at American city tap water. The city of Cleveland took it personally and ran tests on Fiji water (and many other brands) vs their own tap water. The third-party analysis found 6.31 micrograms of arsenic in Fiji water whereas Cleveland tap water had none.
In early 2024, a French newspaper ran an explosive story that reported that drink giant Nestle, the owners of Perrier and Vittel, illegally filtered water for years from contaminated sources. Natural mineral water, as Perrier and Vittel is advertised, is supposed to be pure from its source and should not require purification. That’s why people have trusted those brands for decades. The discovery that the “natural” sources are now contaminated is a cause for concern.
If you’re saying “well those are isolated incidents” consider this. Recent advances in technology now allow us to see with detailed clarity nano particles. These are extremely tiny particles. A recent study found that a typical plastic bottle of water contains over 240,000 nano particles of plastic—almost a hundred times more than what was found in previous studies that could only examine larger particles. Scientists aren’t sure what the long-term effects of ingesting these particles are but I’m willing to bet that it can’t be good for you.
Some people for health reasons refuse to drink tap water because it contains chlorine (to kill bacteria) and fluoride (for dental health). However, chlorine is easily removed by even the most basic water filter (Brita for example) or by letting the water stand overnight since chlorine evaporates quickly. Most basic water filters (like the one in your fridge) can’t remove fluoride but many filters that will remove fluoride are easily found on Amazon for less than $100.
The environmental cost of bottled water cannot be overstated. From the production of plastic bottles to transportation and disposal, every step of the bottled water supply chain exacts a toll on the environment. The manufacture of plastic bottles requires vast amounts of fossil fuels and contributes to pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Americans alone throw away 38 billion water bottles a year—$1 billion worth of plastic.
Then there’s the cost of bringing the bottled water to the store. Take Fiji water for example again. If you ever travel to Fiji, you’ll realize what an astonishing feat it is to deliver water from there to here. It’s an 11-hour flight from Los Angeles to Fiji and then another 4 hours of driving on a two-lane road to the water plant. Of course, the journey in reverse is by boats and trucks. The cost of shipping makes up more than half the cost of the water. And when you consider that the empty plastic bottles must be shipped to Fiji first, it’s really double the journey to bring you water from Fiji.
And the state-of-the-art Fiji water plant runs around the clock, requiring a lot of electricity. More than the local utility infrastructure can handle. So, the plant uses 3 large diesel generators running non-stop spewing exhaust into the local air. Like their marketing says, Fiji water may come from one of the “last pristine places on earth” but the water plant is far from pristine.
Water from Pepsi and Coke (Aquafina, Dasani among others) are sourced from municipal tap water. That’s right. Twenty-four percent of all the bottled water we drink in America is just tap water. This allows the companies to bottle near their markets, so it has the least environmental impact. But to maintain the same taste no matter the source of tap water (so that water in Atlanta tastes the same as the water in Seattle), and to be able to say the water is purified, the companies run the tap water through a reverse-osmosis system that is more potent than the systems used to turn seawater into drinking water. To clarify, the water they are purifying is ready to drink—they are purifying perfectly clean tap water.
Moreover, the disposal of plastic bottles poses a significant challenge. Despite recycling efforts, a large percentage of plastic bottles end up in landfills. The environmental consequences of plastic pollution are far-reaching and can persist for hundreds of years, posing a threat to wildlife and ecosystems.
Another compelling reason to choose tap water over bottled water is its cost-effectiveness. While the initial investment in a reusable water bottle or filtration system may be higher, the long-term savings are substantial. Bottled water, especially when consumed regularly, can quickly add up in expenses, making it a costly choice compared to tap water.
For example, municipal water for the city of San Francisco comes from Yosemite. The water is so pure that the EPA doesn’t require it to be filtered. Let’s say a half-liter of bottled water from the store costs about $1.35. If you filled that bottle with San Francisco tap water every day, it would take 10 years before it would cost $1.35. Put another way, if all the water you used at home (showers, cooking, and drinking) was in the form of bottled water, your monthly water bill would run you $9,000.
And there’s a human cost. It would be one thing if buying bottled water from Fiji actually helped many Fijians rise from poverty. But these bottling plants are so efficient that almost all of it is automated. Fiji’s main export has been sugar. But since 2010, the sale of Fiji water equaled the sale of sugar. The main difference is that the sugar industry in Fiji employs over 10,000 people. The Fiji water company employs 250 people. Paying the added cost of drinking Fiji water vs tap water is not helping thousands rise from poverty. The added cost is paying for shipping and packaging (plastic).
We drink a billion bottles of water a week in America, and we do it because it’s convenient and because we believe it’s better for us. But bottled water is as different from tap water as Starbucks coffee is from a homemade brew. It’s not that different. So, as we drive around with half-empty bottles in our cupholders, or as we mindlessly toss a bottle of water in our lunches, consider the cost. It’s not just a question of whether a bottle of water is worth 99 cents to you, it’s also a question of whether the value is worth the impact you’re about to leave behind.
It takes just a little bit more effort to fill a reusable water bottle and to filter the water (if you want it purer) but we just can’t be bothered. But when you consider that a billion people on the planet have no reliable water source and 3,000 children a day die from contaminated water, consuming that bottle of water we don’t need isn’t just wasteful, it’s an indictment on our society. We value convenience and status (look I’m drinking water from a glacier). But when we understand where the water comes from, and the cost of bringing it to you, it’s hard to look at a bottle of water the same again.