Bottled Water – health versus environmental, ethical and economic costs

Water used to be free.  In fact, it still is in nations with plentiful clean tap water like the US and Canada, but that doesn’t stop consumers from spending over $11.8 billion on bottled water a year.

The American Water Works Association disclosed that tap water costs $0.004 a gallon, less than 1/300 the cost of bottled water yet consumers are spending 300 times the cost of tap water to drink bottled water. Taking into account that almost 2/3 of all bottled water sales are single 500 ml 16.9oz bottles, the cost is significantly higher; about $7.50 per gallon. That’s almost 2,000 times the cost of a gallon of tap water.”

In addition to the above facts, ConvergEx Group Chief Market Strategist Nick Colas recently highlighted a few eye-opening statistics on bottled water consumption in the US;

Americans are the biggest bottled water drinkers on the planet in terms of volume.

China has been catching up to the US in bottled water consumption; having consumed 7.7 billion gallons to the US’s 9.7 billion.

America drinks ~ 3x as much bottled water as the largest European consumer, Italy (3 billion gallons).

Mexico is the world leader in gallons consumed per person at 65.5; the U.S. ranks 11th. The rest of the top 5 are: Italy, 49.9; Thailand, 44.9; United Arab Emirates, 43.2; and Belgium/Luxembourg, at 38.3.

Many regions of the world lack access to clean drinking water and bottled water has become the only safe alternative. Beverage companies know this and have been capitalizing on this in countries like China, Pakistan and India.

There has been a public outcry against large multinational companies such as Nestles draining developing countries’ groundwater to make its products, destroying countries’ national resources and leaving the population with no choice to buy their own water back. Internet petitions against Nestlé’s water practices are many. Here is one example against their water practices in Pakistan http://action.sumofus.org/a/nestle-water-pakistan/?sub=homepage

In an effort to combat such public outcry, Nestles has posted its Water Sustainability, Protection and Stewardship Policy http://www.nestle.com/asset-library/documents/reports/csv%20reports/water/sustainability_protection_stewardship_english.pdf

Here are some other facts about bottled water;

Global consumption of bottled water goes up ~10 % each year.

America is now drinking more bottled water than milk or beer.

To manufacture demand, beverage companies declared war on tap water through advertising

Robert S. Morrison, Vice Chairman of PepsiCo, was reported in 2001 in the New York Times (8/20/2001) to have said, “The biggest enemy is tap water”.

Susan D. Wellington, President of the Quaker Oat Company’s US beverage division (which makes Gatorade) was quoted as having said, “When we’re done, tap water will be relegated to showers and washing dishes.”

Here is the irony;

Almost half of all bottled water in the US is derived from tap water. In Canada, bottled water that is not labeled as spring or mineral water may be from any source, including tap water.  The label is only required to show how the water has been treated.

Tap water in the US is EPA regulated and undergoes testing for e. coli, and is required to provide its source and produce quality reports. Bottled water in the US does not have to meet the same standards; the Food and Drug Administration which regulates bottled water and its standards require less frequent bacteria testing, no mandatory reports of violations to federal officials, and no filtration or disinfection requirements.

In Canada, bottled water is regulated as a food and therefore it must comply with the Food and Drugs Act. The Food and Drug Regulations provide definitions for different types of bottled water and specify microbiological standards, acceptable treatments and labeling requirements for these products. The Health Products and Food Branch has set guidelines for two additional bacteria (other than those in the Regulations): Pseudomonas aeruginosa and Aeromonas hydrophila. Which are bacterial indicators of poor “Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP). The Canadian Food Inspection Agency and other health officials could test for these bacteria when the manufacturer is out of compliance and/or has been involved in food borne outbreaks i.e. once people have gotten sick.

Bottled water in both Canada and the US has been found to be no safer than tap water.

The production of water bottles uses 17 million barrels of oil a year and it takes 3x the water to make the bottle, as it does to fill it.

 

Conclusion

Given that bottled water is no safer than tap water, consumers are left to consider the environmental, ethical and economic cost to purchasing bottled water.

Note: Filtered tap water, using a reverse osmosis method, is available in dispensing machines at many supermarkets across the US and Canada and may be a suitable alternative for those requiring mineral-reduced water for coffee machines or for drinking. Should you decide to purchase filtered water, be sure the machines are frequently serviced and sterilized by trained personnel.

 

References

Business Insider, July 12, 2013, As Tap Water www.businessinsider.com http://www.businessinsider.com/bottled-water-costs-2000x-more-than-tap-2013-7#ixzz2l2WawMl5

Business Insider, Oct 27, 2011 15 Outrageous Facts about the Bottled Water Industry http://www.businessinsider.com/facts-bottled-water-industry-2011-10?op=1#ixzz2l2WCfq3e

Health Canada’s policy on Bottled Water; http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/fn-an/securit/facts-faits/faqs_bottle_water-eau_embouteillee-eng.php

Nestle’s Water Sustainability, Protection and Stewardship Policy http://www.nestle.com/asset-library/documents/reports/csv%20reports/water/sustainability_protection_stewardship_english.pdf