What Bottled Water Does To The Environment

This is one in a series of stories; visit The Daily Meal Special Report: Water for more.

As the summer sun sizzles on your back and sweat droplets dot your overheated forehead, you're suddenly aware of the familiar thirst spreading throughout your mouth. Without thinking twice, you head to the closest convenience store, grab a bottle of water from the cooler, and proceed to gulp the glorious liquid down without a second thought. But in your hands, you hold part of a very big environmental problem: one of the 2 million tons of plastic water bottles that could end up in a U.S. landfill or that cover the ocean with 8 million metric tons of plastic — enough to cover an area 34 times the size of Manhattan ankle-deep in plastic.

We drink bottled water for a number of reasons. Many of us have a preconceived notion that bottled water is cleaner than that from the tap. Some of us simply like the way it tastes. But the number one reason we drink bottled water is convenience.

And convenience is costing us in several ways. Americans spend more than $100 a year per person on bottled water — and some of us spend many times that. Well over 50 billion bottles of water are consumed annually worldwide, with the United States consuming roughly 30 billion of them. The other ways plastic bottled water is costing us are slightly more complicated.

Tap water is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency, tested for scary contaminants like E. coli, and required to identify its source. The Federal Drug Administration regulates bottled water as a "food," and, while it has established regulations for the production, shipping, and handling of bottled water, it does not issue official approvals of bottled water firms or bottled water products. Unlike tap water, bottled water does not necessarily have to be tested for contaminants and doesn't have to identify its sources.  

What the FDA does do is categorize and define bottled water according to the following standards:

"Artesian water: Water from a well tapping a confined aquifer in which the level stands at some height about the top of the aquifer.

Mineral water: Water containing not less than 250 ppm [parts per million] total dissolved solids that originates from a geologically and physically protected underground water source. Mineral water is characterized by constant levels and relative proportions of minerals and trace elements at the source. No minerals may be added to mineral water.

Purified water: Water that is produced by distillation, deionization, reverse osmosis, or other suitable processes and that meets the definition of 'purified water' in the U.S. Pharmacopeia, 23d Revision, Jan. 1, 1995. As appropriate, also may be called 'demineralized water,' 'deionized water,' 'distilled water,' and 'reverse osmosis water.'

Sparkling bottled water: Water that, after treatment and possible replacement of carbon dioxide, contains the same amount of carbon dioxide that it had at emergence from the source.

Spring water: Water derived from an underground formation from which water flows naturally to the surface of the earth at an identified location. Spring water may be collected at the spring or through a bore hole tapping the underground formation feeding the spring, but there are additional requirements for the use of a bore hole."

"In the U.S.," says Elizabeth Royte, author of Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It, "the biggest concern over sourcing involves spring water — who owns it (laws vary by state) and what its extraction might be doing to the surrounding ecosystem. Then there are questions about home rule: Is it right for corporations to pump and export large quantities from a watershed? Should the local community, which relies on this water, have a say in these deals? Fresh water is becoming more scarce, and therefore more valuable, the world over. People are starting to ask: Whose hand do you want on the tap?" 

Speaking of sources, did you know that some 40 percent of bottled water actually comes straight from that tap? In fact, major bottled water suppliers like Nestlé Waters (which controls brands like Poland Spring), PepsiCo, and Coca-Cola have all been sued for unclear labels and false advertising — for stating that their water is sourced from various mountain springs when a lot of it actually comes from municipal water sources.

"Our growing dependency on bottled water is leading to privatization of water sources, and further reducing access to water in developing countries," says Daniella Dimitrova Russo, CEO of Think Beyond Plastic, a project that addresses the problem of plastic pollution. "The 2006 UN Human Development report stated that over one billion people have inadequate fresh drinking water. The report pointed out that slum dwellers in Manila pay more for their water than people living in London. The fabricated need for bottled water exacerbates all issues with water access — availability, privatization, and depletion of natural resources. The bottled water industry is unregulated and, despite boats of added electrolytes, bottled water is often tap water packaged in designer plastic. Every second, over 1,500 plastic bottles end up as garbage."

The production of bottled water involves far more resources than one would imagine. To manufacture the number of BPA-free PET plastic water bottles the world uses in a year takes approximately 17 billion barrels of oil. It also takes about three times more water to create a plastic bottle than that bottle can hold.

We know what you are thinking: But my water bottle is recyclable, right? Of course it is. But the sad fact is that not every consumer is conscientious about his or her bottled water habits. Only about 20 percent of water bottles are recycled. Susan Collins, president of the Container Recycling Institute, says that the sheer amount of bottled water consumed — which is quickly growing — overshadows almost any attempt to correct the situation. "Consumption is completely outpacing growth," she says. "Even if only one percent [of consumers] litter, millions [of bottles] are ending up on the ground, streams or ocean. "

"I don't think that there should be zero bottled water," says Darby Hoover, Senior Resource Specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Bottled water can help provide a safe water solution. It can be reasonable. We way overuse it. For most of us, there are options most of the time in the United States." Hoover also gives companies like PepsiCo credit for using plant-based PET plastic for their bottles, which means that they are effectively cutting back on the fossil fuel resources needed to produce bottled water. The challenge, she says, is to actually get the bottles recycled. (States with beverage container deposit laws do see a significant increase in recycling.)[pullquote:right]

The fact remains that plastic bottles are stomping out a heavy carbon footprint in the name of convenience. Not only do they take decades to biodegrade, they also affect the ecology of the world around them. "Plastic bottles that get into waterways will eventually photodegrade into smaller pieces of plastic that can potentially be mistaken by animals — turtles, birds, some fish — as food," explains Royte. "There are documented cases of birds that have died with their stomachs stuffed with plastic debris (not necessarily from plastic water bottles). It's unknown if they starved or if toxins attached to the plastic poisoned them... One might make a case that plastic bottles harm animals when oil or gas (which are used to make plastic) are extracted — extracting and transporting oil is a heavy industrial activity that fragments habitat and pollutes air and water." This is similarly true with humans, who are concerned about the potential health implications from BPA plastic bottles.

Researchers like Hoover and Collins emphasize that simple planning could help us reduce our need to purchase bottled water, but we should also all be reading bottle labels to determine recyclability — and then actually recycle. 'There is practically no place on earth that is not affected by plastic pollution," say Russo. "And as water scarcity grows, it becomes incumbent upon us as society to develop new methods for addressing this crisis. We lean on innovation and entrepreneurship to develop solutions."