The growth and popularity of bottled water can be largely attributed to aggressive and relentless marketing. Quoted in the article Bottled Water is the Marketing Trick of the Century, Richard Wilk, professor of anthropology at Indiana University said:
Bottled water is the most revealing substance for showing us how the global capitalist market works today. We’re buying choice, we’re buying freedom. That’s the only thing that can explain why you would pay money for a bottle of something that you can otherwise get for [nearly] free. (source)
The same way we are sold a pair of shoes or jeans, we believe that having a brand of bottled water we strongly support is a way of individuality. In addition, we see it as a way to show others our commitment to health and/or sophistication.
The first commercially sold bottled water was was from Jackson’s Spa in Boston in 1767. Throughout the 19th century, the quality and safety of municipal water was rightly questioned. Water contaminated with Cholera and Typhoid were not uncommon. Some other early bottled water companies were: Ricker family from Maine (1845, modern day Poland Springs), Saratoga Springs (1850), and Ozarks Springs Water Company (1905). These and similar companies had moderate success throughout the 19th century. However, in the early 20th century, bottled water declined significantly as use of chlorine in municipal water became more popular and concerns about quality mostly subsided. The resurgence of bottled water (specifically in the U.S.), starting in the late 1970s, is often credited to a successful advertising campaign by Perrier. Since that time there has been a tremendous increase in the popularity of bottled water. Due to a combination of the exploitation of isolated municipal water incidents and effective and aggressive marketing, bottled water companies have expanded in the U.S. from just 16 brands in 1950, to almost 200 brands in 2012 (Aichner). The majority of those brands’ parent-company is Nestle.
Although there are many costs to attribute to bottled water, we will specifically focus on monetary and environmental costs.
The below monetary costs of bottled water were pulled from multiple, reliable sources. If you want to see more facts, please see the footnotes:
- Over $1 billion a year is spent on creating plastic bottles for water (Fishman)
- To meet the FDA “eight glasses of water a day” recommendation, it would cost the average American $.49/year getting water from the tap, and almost $1,400/year getting water from plastic bottles
- The average sixteen-ounce reusable water bottle costs $10 (USD) and lasts twenty years
- An average water filter installed in a faucet or in a water pitcher costs $30 (USD) and can purify the equivalent of 300 sixteen ounce plastic water bottles.
The below environmental costs of bottled water were pulled from multiple, reliable sources. If you want to see more facts, please see the footnotes:
- Making bottles to meet America’s demand for bottled water uses more than 17 million barrels of oil annually, enough to fuel 1.3 million cars for a year (Pacific Institute)
- It takes three times the volume of water to manufacture one bottle of water than it does to fill it, and because of the chemical production of plastics that water is mostly unusable (source)
- Combining the manufacturing, transportation, and refrigeration, the U.S. bottled water industry uses around 50 million barrels of oil a year on bottled water (or 13% of U.S. imports from Saudi Arabia) (Oil consumption calculated using number of plastic water bottles from Jennifer Gitlitz)
- The Great Pacific Garbage Patches (when combined) are estimated to be at least the size of Texas and is mostly made up of plastics, chemical sludge, and other debris
- The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are within the zone of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and although they have no permanent human residents, in 2014, 17 divers collected 57 tons of garbage on and around the islands over a month’s time (source)
Except for in times of certain crisis, there is no necessary place in our world for bottled water. If you live in a developed country, your tap water is most likely publicly well managed and safe to consume. If you feel your tap water is not clean or you do not like the taste of it, buy a filter after testing it so you can continue using your tap water. Our environment cannot sustain our obsession with bottled water. It is time for all of us to be good stewards of water and eliminating our use of bottled water is a great place to start!