water pours resources down the drain
By Emily Arnold
Published February 2, 2006
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.
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
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
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.
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 water
crosses 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 and
other 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 used by this product.
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 are more
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
The United Nations Millennium Development Goal for environmental
sustainability calls for halving the proportion of people
sustainable 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 in comparison
to the estimated $100 billion spent each year on bottled