Back to the Tap

Bottled water may be a commercial success story, but the environment pays a very heavy price

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The U.N. estimates that 1.1 billion people around the world lack safe drinking water, a number that could reach 5 billion by 2025. Very few of them live in the U.S., however. Turn on a tap almost anywhere in America, and you'll get clean, safe water--a minor miracle on much of the planet. But you wouldn't know that from the giant plastic bottles of water that many of us haul around as if preparing for a stroll in the Sahara. Americans drank more than 8.25 billion gal. (more than 31 billion L) of bottled water in 2006, a 9.5% increase from the year before. We buy more bottled water than any other beverage except soft drinks, and soda's market share is fizzling fast. Water sales topped $10.8 billion last year--all for something you can get virtually free. "It's like marketing air," marvels Allen Hershkowitz, an industrial ecologist with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

But the phenomenal growth in bottled water isn't just draining our wallets--it's also putting stress on the environment. It takes oil to make the plastic in all those bottles and oil to transport the water from its source to the consumer, and that means greenhouse gases--a primary cause of global warming. The NRDC estimates that 4,000 tons of CO2 is generated each year--the equivalent of the emissions of 700 cars--by importing bottled water from Fiji, France and Italy, three of the biggest suppliers to the U.S.

The pollution of the skies is matched by the trash left underfoot. Fewer than a quarter of plastic bottles are recycled, leaving 2 billion lbs. (900 million kg) a year to clog landfills. Worst of all, the migration to bottled water fosters a perception that tap water isn't safe or necessary. That's dangerous at a time when aging public-water systems need investment, particularly as global warming increases the incidence of drought. Says Gigi Kellett, director of the Think Outside the Bottle campaign for the watchdog group Corporate Accountability International: "An entire generation is growing up thinking they have to get their water out of a bottle."

Those concerns are fueling a backlash against bottled water. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom last month barred officials from using municipal funds to buy bottled water, while New York City launched a $1 million campaign this summer to encourage citizens to stick to the city's famously clean public water. Salt Lake City's mayor has asked public employees to stop supplying bottled water at municipal events. And a few top-flight restaurants that once would never have dreamed of serving tap are ditching the bottles. At Del Posto, Mario Batali's newest spot in Manhattan, entrées can cost more than $40, but the restaurant isn't interested in adding environmental cost--it will soon stop selling bottled water. Co-owner Joseph Bastianich says the Italian restaurant will instead serve diners its kitchen's purified tap water, sparkling and still. "We try to run the restaurant more responsibly and sustainably," says Bastianich. "The cost of shipping water all over the world and the packing don't seem worth it."

Bottled-water producers feel they've been ambushed. "I think the industry is being targeted unfairly," says Patrick Racz, CEO of Icelandic Water. For one thing, bottled water weans consumers off soda. "People are making a substitution when they go to the fridge, so instead of getting a cola drink, they're getting a bottle of water." But the sheer speed with which bottled water is growing puts the industry under greater scrutiny. On the defensive, the International Bottled Water Association took out full-page newspaper ads on Aug. 3 touting the health benefits of drinking water.

That doesn't mean we have to ban the bottle altogether; bottled water provides an essential stopgap when public water really isn't safe. Like almost any other product, it can be made greener. Icelandic Water, for example, uses clean geothermal and hydropower energy to power its bottling plant. And the industry says it's reduced the amount of plastic in bottles 40% over the past five years. But if we're really going to cut the environmental cost of bottled water, the responsibility lies with consumers. It may be hard to do without the car--a much bigger source of CO2 than bottled water--and uncomfortable to forgo air-conditioning, but giving up the bottle is easy. Just turn on the tap. [This article contains descriptive text within a diagram. Please see hardcopy or pdf.]