The Ugly Reality of Bottled Water 

Oakland researchers reveal that producing plastic bottles wastes huge amounts of energy — the equivalent of up to 54 million barrels of oil a year in the United States alone.

We have become obsessed with bottled water. In 2007, the last year for which complete data is available, consumers purchased 200 billion liters of bottled water around the globe, mostly in North America and Europe. In the United States, we bought 33 billion liters, or nearly 30 gallons per person — an incredible 70 percent increase since 2001. Most of us buy bottled water out of convenience or because of concerns about the quality of tap water. But the truth is that those concerns are completely unfounded. And our bottled water fetish is contributing unnecessarily to global warming.

According to a recent study by researchers at the Oakland-based Pacific Institute, the energy used to make plastic water bottles is enormous. To meet the demand in the United States requires the equivalent of between 32 million and 54 million barrels of oil a year, according to a Pacific Institute report published last month in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Research Letters. Researchers Peter Gleick and Heather Cooley decided to calculate the amount of energy wasted on plastic water bottles because they sensed that a number that floated around the mainstream media over the past few years — the equivalent of 1.5 million barrels of oil — was wrong. "We found that it was grossly underestimated," Cooley told Eco Watch.

Consumer demand for bottled water has spiraled out of control in recent years. According to the California Energy Commission, bottled water sales in the United States now outrank both beer and milk. Bottled water, in fact, ranks second only to carbonated soft drinks. Most consumers probably don't realize it, but the dramatic spike in bottled water use also has been a tremendous boon to corporate America. The three largest producers of bottled water are Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and Nestlé. Coca-Cola sells water under the brand name Dasani, Pepsi makes Aquafina, and Nestlé produces Pure Life and Arrowhead, along with other brands.

Cooley and Gleick believe that most bottled water consumers don't understand that they're actually just buying tap water that has been treated so that it can be called "purified water" under lax governmental rules. "Treated" tap water amounts to 44 percent of bottled water sales in the United States. The remaining 56 percent comes from spring or groundwater. "Most people just aren't aware that 'purified' water is essentially tap water," Cooley said.

The truth is, the vast majority of bottled water sales are completely unnecessary in this country, especially in the East Bay. "We have excellent tap water in the United States," Cooley noted. "We have this false view of tap water. And frankly, in the Bay Area, we have incredible water." Most East Bay tap water comes from the Sierra and is among the cleanest in the nation — far cleaner than most "purified" water sold in plastic bottles or water coolers.

Bottled water wastes energy in several ways. According to the Pacific Institute report, most of it is sucked up in transportation and by the creation of plastic bottles. Gleick and Cooley also examined the amount of energy needed to process bottled water and refrigerate it, and to clean, fill, seal, and label the plastic bottles. But they found the energy wasted in those processes was relatively minor. However, the researchers did not examine the amount of energy required to dispose of plastic bottles after they're used. The Pacific Institute also produced last week's highly publicized report on global warming and the likely devastating effects from the rise in sea levels.

As for plastic water bottles, the biggest problem with them is that they're made from petroleum-based products — mostly polyethylene terephthalate, or PET. Cooley and Gleick estimated that bottled water manufacturers in the United States used one million tons of PET in 2007, and three million tons were used worldwide. The researchers then combined the energy used to make PET and to form it into plastic bottles, calculating that the manufacture of water bottles globally used the equivalent of 50 million barrels of oil a year. In the United States, it was about 17 million.

The amount of energy wasted in transporting bottled water, meanwhile, depends on how far it has to go from its origin to your refrigerator. Bottled water transported by airplane wastes the most energy, followed by truck, rail, and bulk ocean shipping. The most extreme example of bottled water transport is Evian, which is bottled in France and then shipped around the world. Generally, spring and groundwater are transported over longer distances than "purified" water because purified water manufacturers typically bottle and treat tap water at bottling plants in major metropolitan areas.

Gleick and Cooley calculated the energy needed to transport bottled water into the Los Angeles market from local "purified" and spring water bottlers, and from spring water shipped from Fiji and Evian. Not surprisingly, the local water wasted the least amount of energy, while water from Evian used up more energy in transportation than it did to manufacture the plastic bottles in the first place. In all, the researchers estimated that plastic bottle consumption worldwide wastes the equivalent of 96 million barrels of oil to 162 million barrels a year, depending on how far the water travels.


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