Swarthmore College Environmental Studies

21 March 2006


I confess that I would rather hand over a couple bucks for a bottle of water than drink water from the tap for free, and I am not the only one willing to spend this money. “Americans spend around $10,700 on bottled water every minute.” (Howard). In fact, the United States is the “world's biggest drinker of bottled water, consuming 7 billion gallons (26 billion liters) annually” (Owen). To provide a mental image, this amount of water is approximately equivalent to the volume of water deluging from the America Falls at Niagra Falls within a two hour time frame (Bullers). How can we rationalize this country’s mass consumption of bottled water? Bottled water drinkers, such as myself, may attempt to justify their consumption of bottled water by its greater purity, crisper taste, or convenience. How warranted are these justifications? In addition to these issues, this paper will examine the effect of bottled water company’s methods of marketing.

The penny-wise may scoff at my willingness to spend money on water, as I can take sips from a water fountain at no cost. While I, and others, may try to contend that bottled water as purer, we cannot justifiably argue against the penny-wise’s disapproval when faced with the facts. Although tap water in developing nations or impoverished areas may truly be unhealthful or unobtainable, in such a developed nation as the United States, it is invalid to argue that bottled water is less contaminated than the water that flows from our taps. For in our nation, bottled water and tap water are monitored by two different authoritative organizations–the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), respectively–whose different purity standards subject tap water to more rigorous monitoring than bottled water. “The National Resources Defense Council argues that the FDA provides no specific requirements–such as proximity to industrial facilities, underground storage tanks or dumps–for bottled water sources. That’s a looser monitoring than occurs at the EPA, which requires more specific assessments of tap water sources” (Howard). The table below outlines the differences between water monitoring standards of tap water and bottled water:

(Source: National Resources Defense Council)

Furthermore, as sixty to seventy percent of bottled water in the United States is bottled and sold within the same state, and as the FDA only governs interstate commerce, many bottled water companies are subject to the even less rigorous monitoring of state legislation. Therefore, in some cases bottled water may be purer than tap, while in some cases it may either be of lesser or equivalent quality. (NRDC) These facts do not indicate, nor convince me, that bottled water is unsafe for drinking, but they do imply that we cannot generalize and claim that bottled water is purer than tap water.

Since we cannot make an argument for bottled water solely on the grounds of purity, let us turn to the often correlated issue of taste. I personally find that bottled water tastes better than most tap water, with my definition of “better taste” ironically being having little or no taste at all. For some of us, water's taste may serve as an indicator of the water's purity. However, an official of the Minnesota Department of Health argues against us saying that, "Tap water may sometimes look or taste differently...but that doesn't mean it's unsafe. In fact, the most dangerous contaminants are those that consumers cannot see, smell or taste." (Bullers). While I and many others may attribute our discrimination against tap water to taste, such reasoning is not fully supported. Not only does the Natural Resources Defense Council claim that “an estimated 25 percent of bottled water is ‘really just tap water in a bottle–sometimes further treated and sometimes not’” (Owen), and blind water tests have provided evidence that people may be incapable of even differentiating between the tastes of the tap and bottle. Consider the following occurrences:

1. “When Good Morning America conducted a taste test of its studio audience, New York City tap water was chosen as the heavy favorite over the oxygenated water 02, Poland Spring and Evian” (Howard).

2. “For a show on the Showtime cable channel, satirists Penn and Teller got a trendy California restaurant to let them fool customers with a "water steward." Like a wine steward, he had lots of fancy bottles, and most diners said they loved their elegant waters. ‘Oh, yeah, definitely better than tap water!’ said one. But tap water is just what it was–the ‘water steward’ filled the fancy bottles using the hose on the restaurant's patio” (Stossel).

These scenarios do not entirely debunk the notion that bottled water has a supposedly better taste, but they do weaken it. There are also some people who do not have a taste preference, quashing the entire issue of taste. However I am not one of those people, and until I myself participate in one of the above mentioned “tests”, I will acknowledge, but not truly believe, that some taps may provide “tasty” water.

So, let us examine another issue: Convenience. With our busy schedules and all the running around we do, we are bound to get thirsty every now and then. Rather than having to seek out a water fountain or sink(and hence cup from which to drink), bottled water is a convenience in that wherever we go, it can come with us. However, I cannot contend that only water bottled by manufacturing companies can serve this purpose for the reason that we can fill up a plastic sport bottle from the taps in the convenience of our own homes, but then the matter reverts back to an issue of taste/purity. But aside from the taste issue, I tend to think that those who opt to fill a container with tap water rather than purchase a bottled product may do so for environmental reasons. The next time you witness a person taking a sip from a brand name bottle of water, there is an eighty-six percent chance that the plastic bottle will become either garbage or litter, which can take “400 to 1000 years to degrade” (Owen).

Since we are not able to defend the bottled water “hype” on sturdy grounds of purity, taste or convenience, some definitive source must compel our consumption. Let us turn our attention to bottled water marketing. The bottled water industry invades our lives with images of sparkling clear waters, of picturesque natural landscapes, and offers names and descriptions of its products as if to assure us that we are receiving entirely pure products. The National Resources Defense Council conducted a study on terminology used in bottled water labels of member companies of the International Bottled Water Association. Here are their results:

“Pure” – eight bottlers.
“Purest” or “Purity” – three bottlers.
“Pristine” – five bottlers.
“Glacial” – two bottlers.
“Natural” or “Prepared by Nature” – eight bottlers.
“Naturally Purified” or “Naturally Occurring” – three bottlers.
“Premium” – five bottlers.
“Mountain Water” – seven bottlers.
“Clean” – two bottlers.
“Good Health” or “Healthy” – two bottlers.
“For Health Conscious” – two bottlers.
(National Resources Defense Council)

Considering our previous discussion of “purity”, then to what extent are the rest of these commonly used terms overstatements? I like to think that my bottled water comes from “natural” sources, but “in one case, bottled water labeled as ‘Alaska Premium Glacier Drinking Water: Pure Glacier Water from the Last Unpolluted Frontier’ was actually drawn from Public Water System #111241 in Juneau.” Likewise, the two most purchased brands of bottled water in the United States derive from municipal water sources (Howard). If both tap and bottled water originate at the same sources and undergo subsequent purification treatments, then why do I and many others choose to drink bottled water?

We can consider it as an issue of healthier living, which issue we can also attribute to the water industry’s marketing methods. For instance, bottled water company Evian ™ advertises their product in the following manner, “Your natural source of youth...Feel young, fresh, and beautiful with Evian, the original beauty product” (http://www.evian.com). In the light of healthy lifestyles, the battle may not be so much water versus water, as it is water versus sugary drinks and sodas. Taking this view would better justify the concept of bottled water industry, as juice and soda (sold in bottles) do not flow throughout our municipal sources. Maybe we should not confine the issues at hand to the grandeur of a bottled water industry, but rather to a bottled beverage industry of which bottled water is one component.

Along the similar lines of water’s association with personal image, one bottled water company goes as far to state, “It's a fact... people who choose CRYSTAL GEYSER ® ALPINE SPRING WATER ™ are just cool” (htp://www.crystalgeyserasw.com/). Although this statement may sound superficial, history underlies the word “cool” and the importance of personal image, as water technology has its roots in ancient civilizations. “Water management remained the most important technology from the ancient civilizations through the brilliant centuries of medieval Islam” (Adas). Bottled water, too, had its start in these ancient civilizations, wherein “the removal of surplus water from [irrigated] land...leads us to consider also the general question of water supply for other purposes, such as drinking...“ (Drower) Bottled water truly arose in 16th century Europe when its consumption “was the privilege of the haute bourgeoisie, captains of industry, politicians, royalty, and so on. It was bottled in glass or stoneware, with porcelain or cork stoppers” (Nestle). In an image conscious society such as ours, perhaps saying that drinking bottled water makes you look “cool” is not as irrational as we would like to think.

Since Vittel Grande Source initiated the plastic bottle in 1968, a much greater percentage of the population has been entitled to being “cool” (Nestle). Bottled water is no longer a luxury item, available to an elite few. In order to accommodate the steeply growing number of people consuming bottled products and increase the size of the market, water and hydration technologies have advanced. Instead of man-powered procurement of water from wells, the bottled water industry now employs machinated pumps. Sophisticated filtration systems such as vapor compression and reverse osmosis exist, and beneath our feet lie huge infrastructures of pipe systems However, the increase in bottled water consumption has also aggrandized the volume of waste products that are a detriment to the environment. Therefore, water consumption has also had an effect on plastics technology.

Most of today’s water bottles “are made of the oil-derived polyethylene terephtalate, which is known as PET. While PET is less toxic than many plastics...[it] generates more than 100 times the toxic emissions–in the form of nickel, ethylbenzene, ethylene oxide and benzene–compared to making the same amount of glass” (Howard). Furthermore, as we have already mentioned, most of these bottles end up as litter or trash which may take “400 to 1000 years to degrade” (Owen). Within recent years, as a solution to the environmental damage of bottle waste, the Blame It On The Altitude (Biota) Colorado Pure Spring Water company has implemented a biodegradable bottled constructed from PLA plastic which “‘will typically biodegrade in 80 days” (Siggins).

Other companies, such as Brita ®, are making filtrated water available in the household by means of sink faucet attachment filters and filtered water pitchers. In offering these products, they increase the amount of filtrated water available for drinking, while being economical and maintaining low waste levels. For someone like me who is hooked on bottled water, personal filtration systems such as Brita ® seem like the best alternative. If, like me, you consume a great amount of bottled water, perhaps you will reconsider drinking tap or personally filtrated water. I doubt that the bottled water market will ever fully lose substance, but as our obsession with drinking water continues, new technologies may arise that will send it in a new direction.


Adas, Michael, "Machines as the Meaure of Men: Science, Technology, and Ideologies of Western Dominance", Cornell Univ. Press 1989, pp. 1-35.

Bullers, Anne Christiansen. “Bottled Water: Better Than the Tap?” FDA Consumer magazine. July-August 2002. <http://www.fda.gov/fdac/features/2002/402_h2o.html>.

CRYSTAL GEYSER ® ALPINE SPRING WATER ™. <http://www.crystalgeyserasw.com/>.

Drower, M.S., "Ch. 19: Water-supply, irrigation, and agriculture," in "A History of Technology, from Early Times to Fall of Ancient Empires" edited by Singer, Holmyard, and Hall, Oxford Clarendon Press, 1958, pp. 520-557.

Evian ™. <http://www.evian.com/>.

Howard, Brian C. “Message in a Bottle: Despite the Hype, Bottled Water is Neither CLEANER nor GREENER Than Tap Water.” <htp://www.emagazine.com>

National Resources Defense Council <htp://www.nrdc.org/water/drinking>.

Owen, James. “Bottled Water Isn't Healthier Than Tap, Report Reveals.” National Geographic News. 24 February 2006. <http:/news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2006/02/0224_0602 24_bottled_water_2.html>.

Siggins, Corey. “New water bottle makes appearance in Boca Publix stores.” <htp://www.waterindustry.org/New%20Projects/bottled-water-4.htm>.

Stossel, John. “The H20 challenge.” 18 May 2005. <http://www.townhall.com/opinion/columns /JohnStossel/2005/05/18/15453.html>.

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