Why? It seems like a minor step, but when people ditch the bottled water habit and instead drink clean tap water from a reusable bottle, it’s the ultimate gift that keeps on giving. Some of the reasons may surprise you. Here are our top seven:
Water is one of the most essential elements to health, but most of us don’t drink nearly enough of it, in part because it’s not always within easy reach. An estimated three-quarters of Americans suffer from mild, chronic dehydration, one of the most common causes of daytime fatigue. Even a 2 percent drop in our body’s water supply can trigger signs of dehydration, from headaches and short-term memory problems to difficulty focusing on small print.
Water also plays a key role in preventing disease. Studies suggest that drinking the recommended 8 to 10 glasses of water daily can decrease the risks of certain cancers, including colorectal, bladder, and breast cancer. Given the many health benefits, it makes sense to make water a constant companion.
Despite clever marketing tactics designed to convince you otherwise, bottled water is not the pure, safe alternative to everyday tap water. In reality, the water that flows from your faucet is subject to more stringent federal safety regulations than bottled water. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulates only the 30–40 percent of bottled water sold across state lines, and even for this, testing requirements are minimal, especially for chemical, physical, and radiological contaminants. On average, the FDA sends inspectors to bottling plants once every two to three years.
Meanwhile, independent testing of various bottled water brands has identified a wide range of bacterial or chemical contamination in water samples, including at levels that violate state or federal standards or warning levels. Studies found that bottles made from PET (polyethylene terephthalate, or plastic #1, the kind found in most single-serve bottles)—contain numerous chemical additives, including 90 potential contaminants that can leach from the plastic into the water, especially when the bottles are heated (as in the trunks of our cars or in un-airconditioned garages).
In contrast, federal, state, and local environmental agencies require rigorous testing of tap water safety, and municipalities spend billions of dollars to ensure that we have access to clean, cheap water. As a result, there’s almost nowhere in the country where the drinking water isn’t adequate. (To verify that your tap water is safe, contact your local utility to request a copy of its annual water quality report, which is required by law to publicize any contaminant violations in the water system.) If you’re worried about your tap water, you can always buy a filter to remove any contaminants that are present. Drinking filtered tap water is much cheaper than buying bottled water.
Bottled water companies boast about the “convenience” of their products, but really, what’s more convenient than having a go-to bottle right in your purse or bag? When thirst strikes, you don’t need to dart into a store or track down a vending machine. If necessary, you can top off your reusable bottle at a water fountain, restaurant, or convenience store. If you’ve got a smart phone, you can use Food & Water Watch’s handy Tap Buddy app to find and share the locations of water fountains.
When choosing a reusable bottle, look for one made from lined aluminum, glass, or stainless steel. If you must opt for plastic, check for a label indicating that the bottle is “BPA-free,” meaning that the plastic doesn’t contain the chemical bisphenol A, which has been linked to miscarriages and other adverse health outcomes.
In 2012, Americans spent $11.8 billion on bottled water, essentially wasting their money on a commodity that is nearly free to most residents. In a comparison of average prices, Food & Water Watch found that commercial bottled water cost between $0.89 and $8.26 per gallon, whereas tap water cost only $0.002 per gallon. In other words, consumers are paying 240 to 10,000 times more per gallon for water that isn’t any healthier or safer, and is less closely monitored.
The most embarrassing part is, in most cases people are shelling out money for nothing. In 2009, almost half of all bottled water (48.7 percent) sold in the United States came from municipal tap water supplies—essentially, the same water that flows from our kitchen faucets. It’s amazing how easily we can be fooled by the mystique of "fancy" water originating from remote and pristine sources, as this video attests.
Americans drink more than 73 billion half-liter bottles of water a year—enough to circle the globe more than 370 times! Sure, some of us recycle our disposable bottles when we’re done with them, but isn’t it better to just prevent all the waste in the first place?
Unfortunately, because most single-serve beverage containers are used on the go, they are recycled at a lower rate than containers typically used at home. About 77 percent of empty PET bottles end up in our landfills; as litter in lakes, streams and oceans; or are incinerated, a process that releases toxic byproducts such as chlorine gas and ash laden with heavy metals.
The waste also poses an economic burden. With more than 4 billion pounds of plastic bottles ending up in landfills each year, municipalities are paying at least $98 million annually to dispose of bottled water waste—funds that could be better spent on more urgent needs, such as improving neglected public water infrastructure.
Meeting consumer demand for single-use plastic bottles uses large amounts of energy and resources and generates toxic emissions and pollutants that affect our health and climate. According to a study by the Pacific Institute, manufacturing, producing, and transporting bottled water is 1,100 to 2,000 times as energy intensive as treating and distributing tap water. In 2007, U.S. bottled water consumption had an energy-input equivalent of between 32 and 54 million barrels of oil—enough to fuel an average of 1.6 million cars annually.
Meanwhile, broken-down bits of plastic bottles are among the most common items circulating in the so-called "Great Pacific Garbage Patch," an enormous, swirling mass of floating debris in the middle of the ocean. The effects of this and other plastic litter can be deadly for marine wildlife: according to one report, 119 plastic bottle caps were discovered in the stomach of an albatross that was found dead in Hawaii.
To supply bottled water, big beverage companies often take water from municipal or underground sources that local people depend on for drinking water, an arrangement that has few lasting benefits for the local communities.
Nestlé, which sells water under the Deer Park, Poland Springs, Arrowhead, and Pure Life brands, has aroused community ire in states like Maine, Michigan, and California for contracts that allow the company to extract water from local sources at virtually no cost—and it’s edging to make a similar move in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge. Under such contracts, the company can draw the maximum amount of water it wants, regardless of drought or water shortage, and the local water district bears all the responsibility for the well-being of the springs and the water infrastructure. It’s a winning proposition for the company, but a raw deal for communities.
The good news is, the writing may be already on the wall for bottled water. After decades of steady growth, for the first time in years U.S. sales of the water fell during the recent economic recession. What better way to support this trend than to encourage your friends and loved ones to make the switch to tap water today. Heck, why not also pick up a reusable bottle for yourself?
Lisa Mastny is Senior Editor and Director of Publications at New Dream.