According to the United Nations, 783 million people worldwide – nearly one out of every nine people in the world – don’t have reliable access to clean water. Americans have many reasons to prefer bottled water to tap water. Some just don’t care for the taste of their local tap water; others like the convenience of a portable, disposable bottle. Whatever their reasons, they’re part of a large and growing trend. Statistics from the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA) show that Americans consumed 10.9 billion gallons of bottled water in 2014 – 34.2 gallons for every man, woman, and child in the country.
But all this bottled water comes with a cost – both for consumers and for the environment. Bottled water is far more expensive than tap water, and it also uses many more resources to package, ship, and dispose of when the bottles are empty. These costs have many people wondering whether it’s time to lose the ubiquitous water bottle and go back to tap water.
TAP VS. BOTTLED The perceived benefits of bottled water aren’t always accurate. In most places, tap water is just as safe to drink as bottled water – and, according to blind taste tests, just as tasty as well. And while bottled water can indeed be more convenient and trendy than tap water, it’s also more expensive and wasteful. Here’s a look at how tap water and bottled water stack up on four major criteria: cost, taste, safety, and sustainability.
COST Bottled water isn’t just more expensive than tap water – it’s a lot more expensive. According to the IBWA, the average cost per gallon of bottled water – not counting imported or sparkling waters – was $1.21 in 2013. That means that, priced by the gallon, bottled water is more than 600 times more expensive than tap water.
TASTE One of the most common reasons people give for drinking bottled water is that it tastes better than their local tap water. In most blind taste tests, tap water easily holds its own against bottled waters, even the pricey ones. You can see the same result in numerous cities, both in the U.S. and abroad:
SAFETY Many people choose bottled water because of concerns about the safety of their tap water. In many cases, these fears are perfectly reasonable. More than 10% of the community water systems in the U.S. don’t meet the standards set by the Safe Drinking Water Act. Under the SDWA, municipal water systems must send users a consumer confidence report once per year telling them where their water comes from and whether it meets federal standards. Bottled water, by contrast, is considered a food product and regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and therefore is not subject to the same reporting requirements.
SUSTAINABILITY When it comes to taste and safety, bottled water isn’t necessarily worse than tap water – it just isn’t better. However, when it comes to its environmental impact, tap water is definitely far greener. The environmental costs of bottled water bears the added costs, both monetarily and environmentally by contributing to water scarcity, added energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, and packaging waste.
When given a choice between bottled water and tap water, either filtered or unfiltered, drinking from the tap is a better choice for your wallet and for the planet.