Bottled Water: Still Pure Hype

One email instantly caught my eye this morning as I checked my email, “It's time to show your support for bottled water,” the email boldly declared.

My first reaction was a combination of amazement and laughter. The email shouldn’t have surprised me -- after all it was a press release from the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA), the lobbying arm of the billion-dollar bottled water industry. It’s their job to protect their funders—no matter how much pollution and waste they produce, or how they devastate our environment. IBWA’s job is to grease the wheels for bottled water companies making it easy to bring in billions of dollars while maintaining as little government oversight as possible.

What troubled me about this latest ploy was their tactic. IBWA is targeting teenagers. They’ve turned their misleading messages towards the same young people who will be left cleaning up our mess in a few decades. Like Joe Camel did for the tobacco industry, our children are now being targeted to help this gargantuan industry rake in even more profits.

Bottled water producers even want teens to add their names to a pledge--to promise that they will spend their (or their parents’) hard-earned money to buy something that they can get for next to nothing and will cause their world more harm.

I trust that young people will see right through this ridiculous ploy. Still I felt it was worth reminding everybody—young and old—that bottled water is just a waste. Here are a few truths:

  1. The bottled water industry is not transparent.
    This pledge wants us to assume that bottled water is safe. IBWA, however, has fought tooth and nail to avoid regulations that would force them to disclose the data behind this claim. If bottled water is so safe, what do they have to hide?
  2. Bottled water is not well regulated.
    Bottled water in the U.S. (sold over state lines) falls under the regulatory authority of the Food and Drug Administration. But the reality is that 70 percent of bottled water never crosses state lines for sale, which means it is exempt from FDA oversight. And FDA has never even properly regulated the fraction of bottled water for which it has oversight. FDA assigns less than two people to oversee the entire bottled water industry.
  3. Tap water is regulated to ensure it is safe to drink.
    Our tap water is regulated by EPA, which has strict standards in place to ensure that our public drinking water does not contain E. coli or fecal coliform bacteria. FDA rules for bottled water include no such prohibitions. Under law, municipal water from surface sources must be filtered and disinfected, or it must have strict pollution controls. There are no filtration or disinfection requirements for bottled water at the federal level. 
  4. Tap water is certified. Bottled water is not.
    Cities must have their water tested by government-certified labs. No certification requirement exists for bottlers.
  5. Bottled water produces LOTS of waste.
    Bottled water produces up to 1.5 million tons of plastic waste per year. According to Food and Water Watch, that plastic requires up to 47 million gallons of oil per year to produce. And while the plastic used to bottle beverages is of high quality and in demand by recyclers, over 80 percent of plastic bottles are simply thrown away.

Much more information can be found in NRDC’s report: Bottled Water, Pure Drink or Pure Hype.  You can also get a glimpse at the truth behind bottled water by checking out Tapped: The Movie, where you’ll also see how quickly the Food and Drug Administration shuts down an interview when asked about the presence of a toxic chemical, BPA (bisphenol-A), in bottled water.

So I propose a different pledge that you and your kids can feel good about:

Bottled Water Matters

Water matters, but plastic bottles are a waste – a waste of money, a waste of energy and a waste of packaging. For the vast majority of us, plain old tap water is just as good for us as bottled – if not better. Plus, it’s easier on our wallets, doesn’t fill up landfills and doesn’t have to be flown or trucked to your door.

Ensuring all people have access to clean, inexpensive water in their homes is what really matters.

So teenagers, no need to worry, you can go back to refilling your reusable stainless water bottles. The future of YOUR planet depends on it.


Thanks to Valerie Jaffee and Jenny Powers for their contributions to this blog.