OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

Bottled Water Boom Has Environmental Drawbacks

05/30/2007

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Around the world, factories are using more than 18 million barrels of oil and up to 130 billion gallons of fresh water a year to create something that, by and large, most people don’t need. But the product is so amazingly popular that sales are going up 10 percent a year, just like clockwork.

The big success story? Bottled water. And the resources mentioned above are just to make the plastic containers.

Another 41 billion gallons of water is then used to fill them – water that is often just tap water, and other times has less frequent monitoring for safety or purity than if it had come out of a tap.

“Bottled water has become an incredibly big business, up to $100 billion per year,” said Todd Jarvis, an assistant professor in the Water Resources Graduate Program at Oregon State University, and a research hydrogeologist with the OSU Institute for Water and Watersheds. “There are enormous amounts of money to be made here. Some of the profits make our business majors blush, and everyone wants in. It’s just astonishing.”

Jarvis, who has studied the issue for 15 years and makes frequent presentations on it, arrived long ago at a simple conclusion – bottled water is not worth the price, and the people buying it often have no idea of the environmental repercussions. When his students learn the truth about the water itself and hear about the drawbacks of this burgeoning industry, he said, they often change their behavior.

“There have always been, and still are some places in the developing world where bottled water is necessary for health concerns and relief efforts,” Jarvis said. “But in most of the world it was a niche item until the 1970s, when Perrier spent millions on advertising, and the industry just took off. It hasn’t looked back since, and now in America we’re spending $20,000 every minute of every day on bottled water.”

Between 1978 and 2006, the consumption of bottled water in America went up 20 times, or 2,000 percent. Large soft drink companies dominate the market.

With bottled water, Jarvis said, any past issues of health and safety now take a back seat to convenience, taste, and perhaps most important, trendiness. About 700 name brands of water compete for shelf space, and tap water that originally cost maybe five cents a gallon can be sold for $4 a gallon. Doesn’t take a business genius to see how that pencils out.

The water itself, Jarvis said, is generally fine – usually no more or less safe than tap water, which in the United States is among the safest in the world. Worth noting, however, is that community water supplies are subject to fairly strict and constant monitoring required by the Safe Drinking Water Act, while bottled water is considered a “food” and entails much less frequent monitoring for safety and quality by the Food and Drug Administration or individual states. Tests of bottled water have at times found contaminants.

“There doesn’t seem to be any correlation between safety and bottled water consumption in the U.S.,” Jarvis said. “New York City, for instance, gets its water from a very carefully managed watershed and has some of the best drinking water in the nation – and also among the highest per capita consumption of bottled water.”

And some of the myths surrounding water, Jarvis said, need to be checked. Spring water, for instance, is often touted as if it’s inherently safer or more pure than other forms of water – when in fact it could be subject to more surface pollution because of the engineering difficulties associated with securing a source that is a spring-based or shallow well supply. Water from deep wells – like that often used for municipal water supplies – could be of the same or better quality than water from springs.

Taste, Jarvis said, is often a personal preference. Some bottled brands may indeed taste better than the tap water supplies in some locations, one reason that Jarvis says he’s “not against bottled water – but just want people to know what they are buying.”

But before people get too carried away with visions of pristine water from a sparkling aquifer or mountain stream, Jarvis said, they should be aware that 25-40 percent of what is on store shelves is just tap water that has undergone additional treatment or had minerals added at the bottling plant. Groundwater supplies in some parts of the world have been threatened by heavy use from water bottling companies. Consumers are also endorsing the use of oil, energy and other natural resources to create up to 2.5 million tons of plastic bottles each year, transport the heavy product to the consumer, and then deal with the waste disposal concerns. In Oregon, the waste issue is considered serious enough that legislation is pending that would add plastic water bottles to the “five cent refund” law required for many other drink containers.

Oregon, oddly enough, has some of the best tasting bottled water in the world but is only a very tiny player in this market. Only 4 percent of the bottled water consumed in the state actually comes from within its borders. That may change, as more companies become aware of the huge profit potential, Jarvis said.

“If people still want to drink bottled water, I usually recommend purified water, ‘rain’ water or well water from a nearby local source to provide the best combination of purity and environmental sensitivity,” Jarvis said. “But a reasonable alternative is just chilled tap water in a re-usable container. That often removes the chlorine taste that people complain about with tap water, it’s safe, and it’s a lot cheaper.”