Our bottled water habit stands in the way of universal clean drinking water

Less than half of what the world pays for bottled water every year is enough to ensure clean tap water access for millions.

Currently, the global bottled water market is worth $270 billion. Pixabay

Bottled water is one of the most popular beverages in the world. In the United States, bottled water has outsold carbonated soft drinks every year since 2016. Currently, the global bottled water market is worth $270 billion, and it’s projected to exceed $500 billion by the end of the decade. Only three countries combined make up almost half of the global market: the USA, China, and Indonesia.

Despite its widespread consumption, bottled water might actually slow the progress of providing universal access to safe drinking water, according to a recent report from the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment, and Health (UNU-INWEH).

Bottled water can foster distrust of and distract attention from clean tap water

The report argues that the rapidly-growing bottled water industry may have an adverse impact on the investments in long-term public water supply infrastructure development and improvement. The expansion of the bottled water market may distract governmental efforts to provide safe drinking water for all, says Zeineb Bouhlel, study author and research and communication associate at the UNU-INWEH.

“In certain countries such as Mexico and Indonesia, the industry is somehow reducing the role of the state in providing safe water for the population,” says Bouhlel. “When bottled water is popular, the government may spend less effort and less financial resources to make the public water supply available for all and of better quality.”

According to the report, the drivers of the bottled water market aren’t the same around the world. In the Global North, people drink bottled water because they don’t trust tap water and believe the former is healthier. However, individuals in the Global South are primarily motivated by the lack or absence of a reliable public water supply.

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“In many places, bottled water is an important source of safe drinking water absent adequate public water supply systems,” says Sara Hughes, water policy expert and associate professor of environment and sustainability at the University of Michigan. “But the bottled water industry actively encourages distrust of tap water, which does erode public support and investment in public drinking water systems even where the water is available and safe to drink.”

The idea that bottled water is unquestionably safer than tap water must be challenged. The quality of bottled water can be compromised by the origin of the water or the industrial processes it goes through, the report says. For example, commercially-bottled water labeled “mineral water” or “spring water” isn’t guaranteed to be free of Cryptosporidium (Crypto) parasites, the second highest cause of reported waterborne disease outbreaks in 2015.

Globally, tap water is much more regulated and monitored than bottled water, with the latter having less sampling and no obligation to disclose information on the content or the process for some types and in certain countries, says Bouhlel.

The growing bottled water industry may distract attention and resources from the development of public water supply systems, when, in reality, less than half of what the world pays for bottled water every year is enough to ensure clean tap water access for millions of people without it for years to come.

The bottled water industry’s impact on the environment

The bottled water industry may have negative effects on the environment through the whole supply chain, from water extraction to packaging disposal, says Bouhlel. For instance, it contributes to the pressure on water resources and may increase water scarcity at a local level, he adds.

“Bottled water can place additional burden on aquifers, rivers, and streams, unless withdrawals are properly accounted for,” says Hughes. “In most parts of the U.S., and globally, we lack tools to accurately track and measure how an additional withdrawal—such as for bottled water—affects aquatic ecosystems, and the ability to regulate withdrawals from shared aquifers in particular.”

The production of plastics and the logistics of delivering the product to the consumer also come at the price of greenhouse gas emissions, says Bouhlel. The manufacturing of bottled water is very fossil-fuel intensive. A 2009 Environmental Research Letters study estimated the energy footprint of the various phases of bottled water production and found that it requires about 5.6 and 10.2 million joules of energy per liter, about 2000 times the energy cost of producing tap water.

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“Environmental impacts may also be seen at the stage of disposal, where more than 80 percent of bottled water is packaged in plastic and PET containers, and where the recycling rate so far is very low at a global level,” he adds. Plastic bottles often end up in landfills and bodies of water, harming natural ecosystems and biodiversity.

Improving access to drinking water supply in the US

The United States has one of the safest public water supplies in the world. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible for ensuring that public water systems meet the standards for drinking water quality. “[T]he majority of Americans do not need to purchase more expensive and environmentally harmful bottled water to meet their needs,” says Hughes. “That said, there are communities in the U.S. that do lack safe and reliable drinking water and that is completely unacceptable.”

A 2021 Nature Communications study reported that over a thousand community water systems are considered “serious violators” of the Safe Drinking Water Act. Moreover, about 48 percent of households on Indian reservations don’t have access to clean water. Residents of Jackson, Mississippi and Flint, Michigan have all been affected by a major water supply crisis in recent years as well.

According to Hughes, there are three significant drinking water supply challenges in the US, and they can all be addressed with federal investment: ensuring the old drinking water systems are maintained and kept in compliance, providing safe drinking water access in Tribal communities, and addressing drinking water quality and access problems facing rural communities.

“Communities need resources to upgrade and repair aging systems and replace lead service lines, and increasing water rates to cover these costs will not be feasible in all places,” says Hughes. “Tribal communities are in need of significant and long-overdue infrastructure investment.”

Rural communities, which face challenges related to declining water supplies and contaminated water sources, might require a mix of funding and regulatory solutions. This can include restricting agricultural runoff, exploring regionalization opportunities for rural water systems, and investing in technical capacities in these systems and their personnel, says Hughes.

In 2018, the EPA published its Drinking Water Infrastructure Needs Survey and Assessment and reported that the country needs about $472.6 billion to maintain and improve drinking water infrastructure over the next 20 years. It would be used to replace or improve deteriorating pipelines, expand infrastructure to reduce water contamination, and construct water storage reservoirs.

“Some of the most important policy changes could have more to do with how drinking water systems are funded and organized,” says Hughes, “rather than only ramping up regulatory requirements.”