The world’s fastest-growing beverage is a boon to the industry but a bust for the environment and for the more than 1 billion people worldwide who lack access to clean drinking water, according to a new Vital Signs Update from the Worldwatch Institute.
Excessive withdrawal of natural mineral or spring water to produce bottled water has threatened local streams and groundwater, and the product consumes significant amounts of energy in production and shipping. Millions of tons of oil-derived plastics, mostly polyethylene terephthalate (PET), are used to make the water bottles, most of which are not recycled. Each year, about 2 million tons of PET bottles end up in landfills in the United States; in 2005, the national recycling rate for PET was only 23.1 percent, far below the 39.7 percent rate achieved a decade earlier.
“Bottled water may be an industry winner, but it’s an environmental loser,” says Ling Li, a fellow with the Institute’s China Program who authored the update. “The beverage industry benefits the most from our bottled water obsession. But this does nothing for the staggering number of the world’s poor who see safe drinking water as at best a luxury, and at worst, an unattainable goal.” An estimated 35-50 percent of urban dwellers in Africa and Asia lack adequate access to safe potable water,
according to Worldwatch’s State of the World 2007 report.
Consumers in industrial countries choose to drink bottled water for taste and convenience, while in developing countries, unreliable and unsafe municipal water supplies have driven the growth in consumption. Yet many poorer people who seek improved drinking water supplies cannot afford the bottled version. Bottled water can be between 240 and 10,000 times more expensive than tap water; in 2005, sales in the United States alone generated more than $10 billion in revenue.
Global consumption of bottled water more than doubled between 1997 and 2005, securing the product’s place as the world’s fastest-growing commercial beverage. The United States remains the largest consumer of bottled water, but among the top ten countries, India has nearly tripled its consumption, while China more than doubled its consumption between 2000 and 2005.
In industrial countries with highly regulated water supplies, tap water has been proven to be just as safe, or safer, than its commercial counterpart. In the United States, regulations concerning bottled water are generally the same as for tap water, but are weaker for some microbial contaminants. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which regulates bottled water at the federal level, permits the product to contain certain levels of fecal matter, whereas the Environmental Protection Agency does not allow any human waste in city tap water. Bottled water violations are not always reported to the public, and in most cases the products may be recalled up to 15 months after the problematic water was produced, distributed, and sold.