I don’t actually remember the first time I saw single-serving bottles of water for sale. But I do remember thinking that it was crazy! Who would pay for water?
Was I ever wrong! According to the Beverage Marketing Corporation, which provides management consulting, research, and advisory services to the global beverage, food, and consumer packaged goods industries, worldwide bottled water volume in 2016 was 12.8 billion gallons. That’s more than 246,000,000 gallons a week and an increase of nearly 9% over 2015 volume. Around the world, we now drink as much bottled water as we do packaged milk. Or beer. And bottled water now surpasses carbonated soft drinks as the largest beverage category in the United States; a major milestone; with all but 1% of it sourced domestically.
Even though we are less than 5% of the world’s population, Americans consume about 60% of the world’s bottled water. The vast majority of U.S. bottled water companies are small, community-based businesses using local water sources and distributing their products within an average radius of 300 miles from their bottling facilities.
But huge bottling companies like PepsiCo and Coca-Cola control much of the market. In fact, they’ve moved away from their namesake brands to bottled water brands like Aquafina (Coke) and Dasani (Pepsi), each with a 9.4% market-share for the 52 weeks ending August 13, 2017. Nestlé’s Pure Life had a 7.9% market-share for the same period. All of these brands are purified (filtered) tap water which generally sells for about $1.00 for a 16.9 – 20-oz. single-serving plastic bottle, making water sold in single-serving plastic bottles worth twice as much as gasoline. (And I still think that’s crazy!)
According to a Feb. 2018 Food & Water Watch report titled ‘Take Back the Tap’, nearly 64 percent of the water bottled in the United States comes from public water supplies. To run tap water through an in-line, faucet-mounted, and/or pitcher-style water filter at home costs about $.002 per gallon. And one water pitcher filter can produce 40 gallons of freshly-filtered water, or the equivalent of more than 300 16.9-ounce bottles.
What’s more, the majority of empty polyethylene terephthalate (PET or #1) disposable plastic bottles aren’t recycled. They become trash. In fact, Environmental Protection Agency statistics show that less than 1/3 of the disposable plastic bottles and jars sold in 2014 were actually recycled. Which means that most of them ended up in landfills, waterways, and alongside roads and trails. The marine conservation organization Oceana estimates that up to 20 million tons of plastic ends up in our oceans each year, accumulating in huge free-floating assemblages of garbage, like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the most-extensive collection of trash on the planet. More-accurately identified as the Pacific trash vortex, it extends well beneath the ocean surface and spans waters from the West Coast of North America to Japan. According to the Ocean Conservatory, 10% of the plastic manufactured worldwide ends up in the ocean; the majority of it settling on the ocean floor where it will never degrade.
Then there’s the energy that’s required to manufacture all of those plastic bottles. And to package, store, and transport all of that bottled water, sometimes over great distances, to your local convenient store.
These concerns are beginning to change consumer thinking. Cornell University, along with several other colleges and universities across the country, have advanced student-piloted ‘Take Back the Tap’ initiatives; education and awareness campaigns to reduce bottled water consumption and the associated costs, energy use, and greenhouse gas emissions.
It’s estimated that bottled water costs the Cornell University campus community $640,000 annually. Every year, 350,000-400,000 single-serving bottles of water are sold on the Cornell campus, and more than 30,000 five-gallon carboy bottles of water are purchased for use in campus water coolers. The same volume of filtered tap water would cost just $1,000. And Cornell’s annual consumption of bottled water produces more than 250,000 lbs. of CO2 emissions, or the equivalent of 265 barrels of oil. So, Cornell has been reinvesting in public water infrastructure, with the goals of reducing and eventually eliminating the supply of and demand for bottled water on campus, and sustained behavioral change among students after they graduate. Cornell’s design standards for new buildings and renovations now include bottle-filling stations.
Take Back the Tap is part of Cornell University’s Climate Action Plan, which was developed in 2009 by Cornell faculty, students, and staff, with funding from the state energy authority, NYSERDA. The plan is intended to enhance the university’s core mission of education, research, and outreach, while cutting net carbon emissions to zero by 2035.
Photos, from above hydration station provided; Pacific trash vortex illustration courtesy www.marinedebris.noaa.gov.