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Michelle Mehta’s Blog

Put down the bottled water, turn on the tap

Michelle Mehta

Posted March 22, 2010 in Curbing Pollution, Health and the Environment, Living Sustainably, Solving Global Warming

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Almost a fifth of the world’s population—over a billion people—lack access to safe drinking water.   In the U.S., on the other hand, we have an enviable public water supply system that lets most of us turn on any number of taps in our house and get clean, fresh drinking water, day and night.  Yet millions of Americans take this for granted, choosing expensive bottled water instead: Americans consume 33 billion liters (8.7 billion gallons) of bottled water each year.  

This consumption results in a huge waste of money and resources, for water that isn’t even necessarily any safer than tap water.  Some facts: 

  • It takes 3 liters of water to produce 1 liter of bottled water.
  • Producing the 33 billion liters of bottled water that Americans drink each year has an energy footprint equivalent to between 32 and 54 million barrels of oil.
  • The energy footprint of bottled water is as much as 2000 times the energy footprint of producing tap water.
  • Manufacturing the bottles for bottled water alone produces more than 2.5 million tons of carbon dioxide.
  • Only about 13 percent of bottles actually get recycled.
  • About 2 million tons of plastic water bottles a year – 66 million bottles every day – end up in landfills instead of being recycled.
  • While nearly all municipal drinking water systems in the U.S. are covered by EPA standards, only an estimated 40% of bottled water products are regulated by the FDA. 

These facts just scrape the surface of the environmental and social costs of bottled water.  Pristine groundwater and spring water is often understood to be held in the public trust, yet corporations extract and bottle it to be sold at a profit to the corporation, but at a loss to communities that see their groundwater and streams depleted.  For instance, community members in Mecosta County, Michigan spent nine years in litigation simply to require Nestlé to reduce high-volume water withdrawals that were damaging local streams and wetlands. 

For all these reasons, some states—Illinois, Virginia, and New York—have taken the progressive step of banning state agencies from using state funds to purchase bottled water (with some exceptions like in emergencies or for health and safety reasons).  The City of San Francisco also phased out city spending on bottled water after determining the city had spent nearly half a million dollars annually on bottled water.  The money saved on bottled water can instead be spent installing more water fountains and water filters, upgrading water treatment plants, or simply saved by the state.   

NRDC, Corporate Accountability International, and Food and Water Watch have made a similar request to the federal government—asking it to follow these states’ leads and end the procurement of bottled water at federal agencies.  You can help out by taking simple steps like saying “no” to bottled water and using refillable, reusable bottles instead, and watching this fantastic short film by our friends at Corporate Accountability International.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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