Bottled water pours resources down the drain

Posted: 2 February 2006

Author: Emily Arnold

The global consumption of bottled water reached 154 billion litres (41 billion gallons) in 2004, up 57 per cent from the 98 billion litres onsumed five years earlier. Even in areas where tap water is safe to drink, demand for bottled water is increasing - producing unnecessary garbage and consuming vast quantities of energy.

Plastic water bottle waste
Plastic water bottle waste
Plastic water bottle waste is a growing problem in America and throughout the world.
Although in the industrial world bottled water is often no healthier than tap water, it can cost up to 10,000 times more. At as much as $2.50 or £1.40 per litre ($10 or £6 per gallon), bottled water can cost more than petrol.

The United States is the world's leading consumer of bottled water, with Americans drinking 26 billion litres in 2004, or approximately one 8-ounce glass per person every day.

Mexico has the second highest consumption, at 18 billion litres. China and Brazil follow, at close to 12 billion litres each. Ranking fifth and sixth in consumption are Italy and Germany, using just over 10 billion litres of bottled water each. (See data at Earth Policy Institute).

Italians drink the most bottled water per person, at nearly 184 litres in 2004 - more than two glasses a day. Mexico and the United Arab Emirates consume 169 and 164 litres per person. Belgium and France follow close behind, with per capita consumption near 145 liters annually. Spain ranks sixth, at 137 litres each year.

Developing countries

Some of the largest increases in bottled water consumption have occurred in developing countries. Of the top 15 per capita consumers of bottled water, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates, and Mexico have the fastest growth rates, with consumption per person increasing by 44-50 per cent between 1999 and 2004. While per capita rates in India and China are not as high, total consumption in these populous countries has risen swiftly-tripling in India and more than doubling in China in that five-year period. And there is great potential for further growth.

If everyone in China drank 100 8-ounce glasses of bottled water a year (slightly more than one fourth the amount consumed by the average American in 2004), China would go through some 31 billion litres of bottled water, quickly becoming the world's leading consumer.

In contrast to tap water, which is distributed through an energy-efficient infrastructure, transporting bottled water long distances involves burning massive quantities of fossil fuels. Nearly a quarter of all bottled watercrosses national borders to reach consumers, transported by boat, train, and truck. In 2004, for example, Nord Water of Finland bottled and shipped 1.4 million bottles of Finnish tap water 4,300 kilometers (2,700 miles) from its bottling plant in Helsinki to Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia can afford to import the water it needs, but bottled water is not just sold to water-scarce countries. While some 94 per cent of the bottled water sold in the United States is produced domestically, Americans also import water shipped some 9,000 kilometres from Fiji andother faraway places to satisfy the demand for a chic and exotic product.

Fossil fuels are also used in the packaging of water. The most commonly used plastic for making water bottles is polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which is derived from crude oil. Making bottles to meet Americans' demand for bottled water requires more than 1.5 million barrels of oil annually, enough to fuel some 100,000 U.S. cars for a year. Worldwide, some 2.7 million tons of plastic are used to bottle water each year.

After the water has been consumed, the plastic bottle must be disposed of. According to the Container Recycling Institute, 86 per cent of plastic water bottles used in the United States become garbage or litter.

Incinerating used bottles produces toxic byproducts such as chlorine gas and ash containing heavy metals. Buried water bottles can take up to 1,000 years to biodegrade. Almost 40 per cent of the PET bottles that were deposited for recycling in the United States in 2004 were actually exported, sometimes to as far away as China - adding to the resources usedby this product.

Bottling plants

In addition to the strains bottled water puts on our ecosystem through its production and transport, the rapid growth in this industry means that water extraction is concentrated in communities where bottling plants are located. In India, for example, water extraction by Coca-Cola for Dasani bottled water and other drinks has caused water shortages for over 50 villages.

Similar problems have been reported in Texas and in the Great Lakes region of North America, where farmers, fishers, and others who depend on water for their livelihoods are suffering from concentrated water extraction as water tables drop quickly.

Studies show that consumers associate bottled water with healthy living. But bottled water is not guaranteed to be any healthier than tap water. In fact, roughly 40 per cent of bottled water begins as tap water; often the only difference is added minerals that have no marked health benefit. The French Senate even advises people who drink bottled mineral water to change brands frequently because the added minerals are helpful in small amounts but may be dangerous in higher doses.

The French Senate also noted that small, localised problems with tap water can cause a widespread loss of confidence in municipal supplies. In fact, in a number of places, including Europe and the United States, there aremore regulations governing the quality of tap water than bottled water. Quality standards for tap water set by the Environmental Protection Agency in the United States, for example, are more stringent than the Food and DrugAdministration's standards for bottled water.

There is no question that clean, affordable drinking water is essential to the health of our global community. But bottled water is not the answer in the developed world, nor does it solve problems for the 1.1 billion people who lack a secure water supply. Improving and expanding existing water treatment and sanitation systems is more likely to provide safe and sustainable sources of water over the long term. In villages, rainwater harvesting and digging new wells can create more affordable sources ofwater.

The United Nations Millennium Development Goal for environmental sustainability calls for halving the proportion of people lackingsustainable access to safe drinking water by 2015. Meeting this goal would require doubling the $15 billion a year that the world currently spends on water supply and sanitation. While this amount may seem large, it pales incomparison to the estimated $100 billion spent each year on bottled water.

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