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BOTTLED WATER: POURING RESOURCES
DOWN THE DRAIN

The global consumption of bottled water reached 154 billion liters (41billion gallons) in 2004, up 57 percent from the 98 billion litersconsumed five years earlier. Even in areas where tap water is safe todrink, demand for bottled water is increasing—producing unnecessarygarbage and consuming vast quantities of energy. Although in theindustrial world bottled water is often no healthier than tap water, itcan cost up to 10,000 times more. At as much as $2.50 per liter ($10 pergallon), bottled water costs more than gasoline.

The United States is the world’s leading consumer of bottled water, withAmericans drinking 26 billion liters in 2004, or approximately one 8-ounceglass per person every day. Mexico has the second highest consumption, at18 billion liters. China and Brazil follow, at close to 12 billion literseach. Ranking fifth and sixth in consumption are Italy and Germany, usingjust over 10 billion liters of bottled water each.

Italians drink the most bottled water per person, at nearly 184 liters in2004—more than two glasses a day. Mexico and the United Arab Emiratesconsume 169 and 164 liters per person. Belgium and France follow closebehind, with per capita consumption near 145 liters annually. Spain rankssixth, at 137 liters each year.

Some of the largest increases in bottled water consumption have occurredin developing countries. Of the top 15 per capita consumers of bottledwater, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates, and Mexico have the fastestgrowth rates, with consumption per person increasing by 44–50 percentbetween 1999 and 2004. While per capita rates in India and China are notas high, total consumption in these populous countries has risenswiftly—tripling in India and more than doubling in China in thatfive-year period. And there is great potential for further growth. Ifeveryone in China drank 100 8-ounce glasses of bottled water a year(slightly more than one fourth the amount consumed by the average Americanin 2004), China would go through some 31 billion liters of bottled water,quickly becoming the world’s leading consumer.

In contrast to tap water, which is distributed through an energy-efficientinfrastructure, transporting bottled water long distances involves burningmassive 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 shipped1.4 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 isnot just sold to water-scarce countries. While some 94 percent of thebottled water sold in the United States is produced domestically,Americans also import water shipped some 9,000 kilometers from Fiji andother faraway places to satisfy the demand for chic and exotic bottledwater.

Fossil fuels are also used in the packaging of water. The most commonlyused plastic for making water bottles is polyethylene terephthalate (PET),which is derived from crude oil. Making bottles to meet Americans’ demandfor 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 2.7million 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 percent of plasticwater bottles used in the United States become garbage or litter.Incinerating used bottles produces toxic byproducts such as chlorine gasand ash containing heavy metals. Buried water bottles can take up to 1,000years to biodegrade. Almost 40 percent of the PET bottles that weredeposited for recycling in the United States in 2004 were actuallyexported, sometimes to as far away as China—adding to the resources usedby this product.

In addition to the strains bottled water puts on our ecosystem through itsproduction and transport, the rapid growth in this industry means thatwater extraction is concentrated in communities where bottling plants arelocated. In India, for example, water extraction by Coca-Cola for Dasanibottled water and other drinks has caused water shortages for over 50villages. Similar problems have been reported in Texas and in the GreatLakes region of North America, where farmers, fishers, and others whodepend on water for their livelihoods are suffering from concentratedwater 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. Infact, roughly 40 percent of bottled water begins as tap water; often theonly difference is added minerals that have no marked health benefit. TheFrench Senate even advises people who drink bottled mineral water tochange brands frequently because the added minerals are helpful in smallamounts but may be dangerous in higher doses.

The French Senate also noted that small, localized problems with tap watercan 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.U.S. water quality standards set by the Environmental Protection Agencyfor tap water, for instance, are more stringent than the Food and DrugAdministration’s standards for bottled water.

There is no question that clean, affordable drinking water is essentialto the health of our global community. But bottled water is not the answerin the developed world, nor does it solve problems for the 1.1 billionpeople who lack a secure water supply. Improving and expanding existingwater treatment and sanitation systems is more likely to provide safe andsustainable sources of water over the long term. In villages, rainwaterharvesting and digging new wells can create more affordable sources ofwater.

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

Written by: Emily Arnold, Earth Policycolor="#008000">RELATED LINKS:



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