Americans bought a total of 8.7 billion gallons of bottled water in 2008, sold in a variety of containers from small single-serving bottles to multi-gallon water cooler bottles (BMC, 2009). The increasing popularity of bottled drinking water has significant environmental and social impacts, from the energy used to produce the plastic containers and deliver filled bottles to consumers, to the concentrated water withdrawals near bottling facilities, to the plastic waste from discarded bottles. By choosing tap water over bottled water, universities can significantly reduce negative environmental impacts while also saving money.
Extraction, pumping, bottling, transporting, and chilling bottled water is less energy efficient than using the existing network of reservoirs, storage tanks, and pipes that furnish tap water to most homes and buildings in the U.S. (EPI, 2006). The vast majority of energy required in the manufacturing of bottled water occurs during the production of the plastic water bottles and transportation (Pacific Institute, 2009).
Most plastic water bottles are energy intensive to produce and derived from petroleum. Ninety-six percent of the bottled water sold in the U.S. in 2005 was sold in petroleum-based polyethylene terephthalate (PET) containers, most of which were single-serve sizes of one liter or less (CRI, 2007). In 2007, 1 million tons of PET was used to make bottles for U.S. consumption at a rate of approximately 100,000 MJ/ton of PET. Also, as the container volume increases, bottlers are more likely to use polycarbonate bottles instead of PET, which requires approximately 40% more energy to produce than single-serve PET bottles (Pacific Institute, 2009).
The transportation of bottled water accounts for a substantial amount of energy. Water, weighing one metric ton per cubic meter, requires a significant effort to ship. The distances and mode of transportation greatly affect the total amount of energy used. Evian water, which is sourced in France, is illustrative of some of the long-distance commutes bottled water takes from source to consumer. Evian is trucked from various sources to French ports, shipped to the United States across the Atlantic Ocean, transported by train and then distributed locally by truck, accruing a combined energy cost of approximately 5.8 MJ/liter (Pacific Institute, 2009).
According to one estimate, the entire production of bottled water in the United States required the energy equivalent of approximately 32-54 million barrels of oil. The energy required to produce tap water, by comparison, requires 2,000 times less energy (Pacific Institute, 2009).
While PET is considered less toxic than many plastics, manufacturing PET resin does generate toxic air emissions in the form of nickel, ethylbenzene, ethylene oxide and benzene (EC, 1996). Furthermore, nearly 50 billion new PET plastic bottles were produced in 2005 from virgin rather than recycled materials, thus producing additional greenhouse gases (CRI, 2007).
The use of post consumer PET is very rare. Major beverage companies, such as Pepsi, have begun to incorporate post consumer PET in their plastic bottles, but recycled PET only accounts for 10 percent of material used in bottles.
If the percentage of post consumer PET used in plastic bottles across the county was 25 percent (in 2004), the energy equivalent of 4 million barrels of oil could have been saved (CRI, 2006).
Most plastic water bottles are discarded as trash. In 2004, only 14.5 percent of non-carbonated beverage bottles made from PET in the United States were recycled (see Figure 1), although this figure is increasing (APC, 2005). The recycling rate increased to approximately 23 % in 2006, although this still represented 633,000 – 999,000 tons of PET entering landfills annually (GAO, 2009). In 2004, almost 40 percent of the PET bottles for recycling in the U.S. were exported—often to China—requiring additional energy to transport (EPI, 2006). There are also concerns about lax environmental and worker safety standards of overseas recyclers, producing yet more pollution while endangering the health of workers (Vidal, 2004).
When bottles are burned in industrial incinerators, hazardous materials such as chlorine and dioxin can be released into the air (CRI, 2007). Though pollution control equipment at state of the art waste combustion facilities can help to minimize these hazardous emissions, doing so comes at a premium which further increases the net cost of bottled water.
Water resources on local, regional, national, and global scales are becoming even more precious due to increasing population and scarcity. Ironically, it takes substantially more than one gallon of water to produce and distribute one gallon of bottled water. Millions of gallons of water are used in the plastic-making process, and for each gallon that goes into the bottles, two additional gallons are used in the purification process. See Figure 2 (UCS, 2007).
Bottling plants can adversely affect local water supplies. Pumping large quantities of water can deplete underground aquifers that supply water to local communities and aquatic wildlife habitats (EPI, 2006). The appropriation of public water supplies by private entities raises social justice concerns when local users are displaced and public resources are commodified (EPI, 2006). These concerns are heightened in the case of imported water, where less affluent local populations may be deprived of vital water resources in order to provide “convenience” water to consumers elsewhere (IFG, 2001).
In the United States, tap water is more closely regulated than bottled water. Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible for tap water standards whereas bottled water is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA standards are based on the EPA’s tap water standards. However, FDA testing is less frequent and covers fewer contaminants. Moreover, FDA rules do not apply to water packaged and sold within the same state (NRDC, 1999). Furthermore, the FDA does not require bottled water manufacturers to make test results available to the public, even when contaminants have been found (GAO, 2009). For more information, see Standards.
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) completed a four year study in 1999 and found that one-third of 103 brands of bottled water studied contained some levels of contamination, including traces of arsenic and E. coli. The study did not conclude that bottled water quality on the whole was inferior to that of tap water, but cautioned that the regulatory framework for bottled water is inadequate to assure consumers of either purity or safety (NRDC, 1999).
Moreover, bottled water is very often derived from municipal tap water sources. In 2006, approximately 44 percent of all bottled water in the United States originated from municipal tap water and was sold as “purified” water, with the remaining 56 percent coming from protected springs or groundwater (Pacific Institute, 2009).
Chemical leaching from plastic bottles is an additional environmental and human health concern. Polyethylene terephthalate (PET, PETE, or #1), the plastic used for packaging most single-serving bottled waters, is not meant for repeated use, but consumers often do refill and reuse these bottles. PET plastic is considered more stable and less prone to leaching than other forms of plastic, but studies suggest that with repeated use PET containers may release di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP), an endocrine-disrupting compound and probable human carcinogen (Masterson, 2006). Another study found elevated levels of the chemical, antimony, in water bottled in PET bottles, and traced the source of contamination to the bottles themselves, although the concentration levels were below those currently considered safe for drinking water in the U.S. and Canada (SKC, 2006). Studies have also found that toxin concentrations increase the longer the water is in the bottle (Masterson, 2006). Considerable attention has been paid to the chemical leaching problems associated with Bisphenol A (BPA). Although the use of BPA raises health and safety issues, it is important to note that PET plastics do not contain BPA (PETRA, 2008). BPA and its use in polycarbonate bottles will be discussed in further detail in the “Reusable Containers” section of this Guide’s Cost, Quality, and Supply chapter.
In many cases, simply switching from bottled water to tap water addresses these concerns. However, not all tap water is the same. The EPA reports that over 90 percent of U.S. public water systems meet its standards for safety (EPA, 2007). Even so, due to a combination of pollution and deteriorating equipment and pipes, some public water systems deliver drinking water that contains contaminant levels that exceed EPA limits (either legal limits or unenforced suggested limits) and may pose health risks to some residents. Addressing the problem of aging water infrastructure will require significant investments, but evidence suggests that this investment pays off in increased economic activity. Data from a joint U.S. Conference of Mayors and Cadmus Group study shows that “a $1 increase in local government spending on water and sewer infrastructure and operations and maintenance (O&M) increases total local economic activity by $2.62” (USCM, 2008).
In summary, quality concerns exist for both tap water and bottled water. Before implementing a new policy or practice prohibiting or limiting bottled water, check the EPA’s online database of reports from local water quality districts: www.epa.gov/safewater. If the report you need is not in the database, your water district is required to produce and mail a report to customers upon request.
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