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Rethinking Bottled Water

How to be green on a budget.

From the WebMD Archives

Over the past decade, bottled water has become an ever-present part of American life. You’ll find bottles of Dasani, Poland Spring, Evian, or Aquafina at the gym, in the checkout line at the grocery store, in the office.

Sales of bottled water nearly doubled between 1997 and 2007, reaching about $11.5 billion. In 2007, Americans drank 29 gallons of water per capita.

But that’s begun to change. From a peak in 2007, bottled water consumption dropped in 2008, down by 3.8% from the previous year. Recently, cities, schools, natural food stores, and restaurants have begun to “buy local” -- offering tap water rather than bottled -- for environmental and economic reasons. For example, many of the mayors at a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors voted to phase out the use of bottled water. And more and more individual consumers are following suit.

Picking up a bottle of water at the supermarket or the gym is quick and easy, but it has its costs.

  • Bottled water is expensive. Depending on where you live, you’ll pay between $1 and $2 for the average 16-ounce bottle. (That’s between 240 and 10,000 times the cost of tap or filtered water.)
  • Bottled water is hard on the environment. Even though about 23% of plastic water bottles are recycled, that still leaves about 2 million tons of bottles pouring into landfills every year.
  • Bottled water isn’t necessarily purer than tap water. An investigation by the Environmental Working Group found chemical contaminants in every brand tested -- including disinfection byproducts, fertilizer residue, and pain medication.

What’s Really in Bottled Water?

In a lot of cases, bottled water is just tap water. The EWG report found that at least two distributors (Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club) were basically bottling and selling tap water, while many other major brands, including Dasani and Aquafina, distill or purify tap water for their product. If your bottle doesn’t say “spring water” on it, chances are the water came from a municipal water source.

In most cases, you really don’t need to buy bottled water. Municipal tap water is almost always safe to drink, experts say.

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“It’s often a question of palatability -- a lot of municipal water has some residual chlorine taste,” says Craig Mains, an engineering scientist at the National Environmental Services Center at West Virginia University. “But there’s a lot you can do to improve the taste and quality of your tap water.”

  • Refrigerate. “Just putting a pitcher of water in the fridge for awhile will remove the chlorine taste that bothers many people,” Mains says.
  • Boil. If you’re worried about contaminants in your water, boiling the water is an inexpensive way to remove microbes.
  • Filter. There are many types of water filters available. You can buy water pitchers with built-in filters or filters to attach to your faucet. These are inexpensive options, ranging from $20 to about $60. Many refrigerators also come with filters for their water dispensers. Water filters can also make tap water safer for small children and people with compromised immune systems.
  • Mega-filter. You can buy a whole-house reverse osmosis filtration system from a company like Culligan for about $1,000, plus a monthly service cost that includes filter replacement. Culligan claims that this works out to about six cents per gallon of filtered water.

Enjoy Bottled Water the Green Way

If you still love your bottled water, how can you make it more economical and environmentally friendly?

  • Buy a dispenser and have large 5-gallon jugs delivered to your office or home. The company picks up and drops off the jugs, so there’s no recycling problem. Although it’s still more expensive than tap water, bottled water is much cheaper bought in large quantities.
  • Get a reusable sports bottle (the metal ones made by companies like Thermos and Klean Kanteen cost between $10 and $20), and fill it with water from your home dispenser to use on the go.
  • Recycle your bottles. “Plastic water bottles are every bit as recyclable as your newspaper, but many people don’t remember,” says Jim Karrh, formerly the chief marketing officer for Mountain Valley Spring Company. “The benefit of bottled water is portability, and when you’re out at the park or driving around, where do you recycle that bottle?” Instead of tossing it in the trash, hold on to your bottle until you get home or to a recycling bin.

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on June 19, 2013

Sources

SOURCES:

International Bottled Water Association, Alexandria, Va.

U.S. Conference of Mayors, Washington, D.C.

Worldwatch Institute, Washington, D.C.

Environmental Working Group, Washington, D.C.

Craig Mains, engineering scientist, National Environmental Services Center, West Virginia University, Morgantown, W.V.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, D.C.

Eric Rosenthal, senior vice president of marketing, Culligan, Rosemont, Ill.

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