5 Reasons to Rein in the Bottled Water Industry

Published Nov 10, 2023

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Clean Water

The bottled water industry wants to replace well-funded, equitable public water systems. We can and must stop it.

The bottled water industry wants to replace well-funded, equitable public water systems. We can and must stop it.

Every minute, more than one million plastic bottles of water are sold around the world. Many of them become unrecycled plastic waste mere minutes or hours after they’re opened. And if the bottled water industry had its way, we’d be buying even more. 

But bottled water harms the environment and our health, and increasing reliance on it would put safe, clean water out of reach for even more families. Instead, our governments need to support our public water systems and stop companies trying to profit from a human right. Here are five reasons why.

1. Water Is a Human Right. It Shouldn’t Be Sold for Private Profit

Water is a human right that the U.S. should ensure for everyone. However, unjust policies and disinvestment mean communities across the country lack access to it or have suffered major water emergencies. 

This has resulted in mistrust that bottled water makers have seized on and amplified to push their overpriced product. What they don’t tell you is that bottled water is often just filtered tap water. Two-thirds of bottled water comes from municipal water systems; yet, it can cost anywhere from 240 to 10,000 times more than tap water.

Not only is it expensive; bottled water can stand in the way of real solutions for water systems. The mistrust it fosters can slow or block efforts to provide safe, affordable, public water in the long-term. 

Bottled water also moves a vital resource out from public control and into corporate hands. Water is a public trust resource and cannot be treated like a commodity for corporate profit.  

2. It Worsens Environmental Injustice

While a growing bottled water industry threatens the right to water for everyone, environmental justice communities — particularly those that are majority-Black, Brown, Indigenous, and low-income — bear and will bear the worst of its effects. 

Because of historic and ongoing unjust policies and disinvestment, these communities are more likely to have unsafe water. Moreover, major water emergencies disproportionately occur in majority-Black cities such as Jackson, Mississippi. For these reasons, environmental justice communities also disproportionately rely on bottled water

At the same time, these communities are more likely to struggle to afford high water bills or higher spending on bottled water. In fact, the share of household income spent on bottled water for Black and Brown families in the U.S. is more than double that of white families. 

To add insult to injury, when it comes to unpaid water bills, municipalities have been far more forgiving to bottled water companies than their own residents. In Detroit, prior to 2020, thousands of residents faced water shutoffs for unpaid bills of just $150. Meanwhile, water bottlers racked up overdue bills and late fees of tens of thousands of dollars without experiencing any shutoffs.

Get the full scoop on bottled water. Learn more in our new fact sheet, “The Untapped Truth: Bottled Water Contributes to Our Climate and Water Crises”

3. Bottled Water Is Often Riskier Than Tap

Bottled water companies have promoted their product as “safer,” but that’s far from the truth. In the U.S., bottled water is under weaker regulations than tap water. When it comes to chemicals, microbes, and radioactive material, testing for bottled water is less stringent than tap water.

Moreover, the bottling and storage processes can contaminate bottled water with heavy metals, benzene, and pesticides, as well as pathogens and parasites. 

Plastic bottles also contaminate bottled water with microplastics — small plastic particles linked to cancers as well as harm to our immune system, development, reproduction, and more. Microplastic levels in bottled water are over 7 times higher than those in tap water.

4. It Drains Our Already-Dwindling Water Supplies

Unsurprisingly, bottled water is an incredibly thirsty industry. For instance, Nestlé Waters (now owned by BlueTriton in North America) used an estimated 4.1 liters of water for every single liter of bottled water. That’s not counting the water used for drilling gas to make the plastic or the production process of the plastic bottles themselves.

To quench its thirst, the industry often goes after precious groundwater sources that won’t replenish over our lifetimes. Not only does it abuse these water sources — it may pay next to nothing for them. 

In California, Nestlé (now BlueTriton) paid just $524 to extract around 30 million gallons a year from under the San Bernardino Forest. Though community activists successfully fought to stop the drilling, BlueTriton has sued to start again.

5. It’s Horrible for the Environment and the Climate

At the end of the day, the bottled water industry isn’t selling water — it’s selling plastic, which quickly becomes toxic pollution. Across the world, 85% of single-use water bottles pollute our land or oceans or end up in landfills, where they can take a millennium to degrade.

And while bottled water companies make big claims about “recycling,” they continually fail to meet their promises. For instance, BlueTriton’s own lawyers have said the company’s sustainability claims are “vague and hyperbolic.”

This plastic production also makes bottled water incredibly energy-intensive and bad for the climate. Bottled water requires up to an estimated 2,000 times as much energy to produce than tap water. This is largely due to plastic production, which directly fuels climate change since fossil fuels are a key ingredient in plastic.

Bottled Water Companies Can’t Replace Our Public Water

Our publicly owned water systems need a comprehensive solution to ensure safe water for all. Food & Water Watch has helped sound this alarm for years. But we cannot let corporations continue framing the answer as “buy bottled water” instead of “invest in public water.”

It would only take half of what the world spends on bottled water each year to fund clean tap water for the hundreds of millions worldwide who lack this human right. We must act now.

We need to counter the bottled water industry’s narrative that tap water can’t be trusted. That means exposing myths about bottled water, improving our public water infrastructure, and ensuring clean water access for all families.

Food & Water Watch is calling on all levels of government to:

  • Stop companies from overpumping our precious groundwater,
  • Stop new bottled water facilities,
  • Provide clean water access to residents currently under-served by underfunded municipal systems,
  • End our reliance on fossil fuels and better manage plastic waste to help stop our growing plastic pollution crisis, and
  • Invest in public water systems through legislation like the WATER Act.

Help us fund and support public water for all. Urge your representatives to support the WATER Act.

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