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Reuse, recycle and now, refill: Bottled water comes under attack

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A runner rehydrates after a workout in New York City's Central Park (Photo by Dara L. Miles)

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Bottled water is a common sight in Central Park on a warm day (Photo by Dara L. Miles)

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Two of the refillable bottles offered on the Tapening Website. (Photo courtesy of Tappening,com)

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Tapening creators Eric Yaverbaum (l) and Mark DiMassimo (r) with reusable water bottles. (Photo courtesy of Tappening.com)

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Environmental activists say only 20 percent of water bottles are recycled (Photo by Dara L. Miles)

With the water-for-sale industry under increasing assault from environmentalists, there are signs that America’s $11 billion-a-year thirst for bottled water may be slackening.

Over the last decade, Americans have increasingly reached for bottled water in convenience stores, restaurants, at home and at work. But several nationwide environmental campaigns are convincing some consumers, restaurateurs and local governments to say “no” to plastic bottles in favor of water from the faucet. Proponents say bottled water hurts the environment because of the pollution generated to make and transport the product and the billions of unrecycled bottles that end up in landfills. A switch to tap water also could help restore public confidence in local water systems.

The weakening economy could also give the movement a boost. As the cost of food and fuel soars, some people may ditch their bottled-water habit to save money.

Not everyone will switch, however. Some people worry that their tap water is contaminated, and others prefer the taste of bottled water. The bottled water industry, in the meantime, says it is working to reduce its products’ environmental impact.

The United States ranks number one in the world for bottled water consumption, according to the International Bottled Water Association. Americans drank 8.8 billion gallons of bottled water in 2007, about 29 gallons—or 260 12-ounce bottles—per person. That’s more than a 100 percent increase over 1998 levels, after Coke and Pepsi introduced their brands of water, Dasani and Aquafina.

Growth is slowing, however, according to Gary Hemphill, manager of industry consultant Beverage Marketing Corp. Bottled water sales in the United States grew last year by 6 percent, compared with a 9.5 percent increase in 2006, but the slower growth rate could be partially due to inertia.

“The category has gotten so large that the growth rates are likely to moderate over time,” Hemphill said. Most of the softening in 2007 sales came in the second half of the year, and the back-to-tap movement “could be having some impact,” he said.

The thrust of those campaigns, such as “Take Back the Tap,” “Think Outside the Bottle,” and “Tappening,” is that bottled water is bad for the environment. According to advocates, only 20 percent of the bottles get recycled, and plastic production requires a diminishing natural resource--oil.

“In 2006, we used the equivalent of 17 million barrels of oil to make the bottles. That’s enough fuel for a million cars in the U.S. for a year,” said Eric Yaverbaum, 46, a New York City public relations consultant and co-founder of Tappening. A Web-based campaign launched in November 2007, Tappening urges consumers to trade in their empty disposable bottles for the sturdy refillable kind. Yaverbaum said he has received more than 100,000 bottles from consumers so far. He hopes to deliver a million empties to Coke’s Atlanta headquarters this summer.

Another group looking to influence consumers is Boston-based Corporate Accountability, Inc. Last year, it kicked off its “Think Outside the Bottle” campaign, a grass-roots effort that so far has convinced 24,000 individuals to pledge they’ll pick tap water over bottled water.

Some Americans, like the Busic family of Laguna Beach, Calif., have switched even without pressure from activists.

“We’ve been reading how bad bottled water is for the environment,” said Cindy Busig, a mother of two. “We’re looking for a lightweight container that we can reuse and just put tap water in.”

Holly Cooper, 50, of Winter Park, Fla., isn't a total tap water convert, but she has worked out a compromise that satisfies both her need for convenience and her concern for the environment.

“If I need a bottle of water and I’m not at home, I’ll buy a bottle,” said Cooper, who then reuses the bottle. “I’ll fill it up with tap water when I need it.”

Individual consumers are not the only ones feeling the pressure. Activists are also leaning on local governments and restaurants. A dozen cities have signed Corporate Accountability’s pledge and are canceling or auditing their bottled water contracts, according to national organizer Deborah Lapidus. Among the municipalities switching to local tap water for their employees are San Francisco, Austin, and Minneapolis.

“They’re saving taxpayers’ money and helping the environment when they eliminate that spending on bottled water,” Lapidus said. “And they’re restoring people’s confidence in their public tap water.”

Because of the bottled water industry’s marketing muscle, Lapidus says, people have come to believe that bottled water is better than what they get from their local water systems. She says when the focus is shifted away from tap water, taxpayers are less likely to vote for costly improvements to their municipal waterworks.

The environmental groups’ efforts are prompting a growing number of restaurants to offer tap water instead of bottled water. Corporate Accountability recently convinced some restaurants in Boston and Chicago to opt for tap water, and “Take Back the Tap” is trying to win over restaurants in San Francisco.

An initiative of the public interest group Food and Water Watch, Take Back the Tap has joined with the City of San Francisco to urge restauranteurs there to stop selling bottled water, according to Executive Director Wenonah Hauter. Take Back the Tap is also reaching out to college campuses across the country to raise awareness of the critical need for funding to improve local water and sewer infrastructure--some systems date back to the Civil War.

Hauer hopes her group’s campus recruiting effort will result in a “new generation of water activists” to lobby Congress for a clean water trust fund.

Environmental efforts aside, some consumers may find the cost of bottled water reason enough to switch.

Kyla Hedding is a spokeswoman for the American Water Works Association in Denver, a non-profit organization dedicated to improving drinking water quality and supply. A gallon of bottled water averages around $2.30. The same amount, Hedding says, buys a whole lot of water from the faucet.

“You can refill a bottle of water a thousand times for what a new bottle will cost you at the store,” she said.

Not everyone is convinced that tap water is safe, however. The Ausenbaugh family lives in a rural Kentucky community and drinks spring-fed well water from their property. But when they leave home, their drinking habits change.

“We always get bottled water in restaurants wherever we go because we don’t trust the tap water,” said Marni Ausenbaugh, 38, of Mayfield. “You just don’t know where it comes from.”

Others say their local water doesn’t taste good. Marthe Pettersen, 16, moved last year from Norway to Melbourne, Fla., with her parents. The family of four drinks four cases of bottled water a month. Compared with Norway’s water, “the tap water tastes like chlorine,” said Pettersen.

The Pettersens say that, if they are forced to cut costs in the face of a recession, they will still buy bottled water.

The industry, for its part, says its members have taken steps to reduce their products’ environmental impact, according to Joseph Doss, president of the International Bottled Water Association based in Alexandria, Va.

“If you drink bottled water, you know that the industry is using much lighter weight plastics for its containers,” Doss said. “The amount of resin that is needed to produce those smaller containers has been reduced by 40 percent over the last five years.”

Doss also says it’s unwise to single out bottled water for attack, because anything that discourages the consumption of a healthy product like bottled water is not in the public interest. Further, he says, it’s unfair.

“The small 16.9 or 20 ounce bottles make up just one-third of one percent of the total waste stream in the United States,” he said. “People have to focus their efforts on all consumer goods.”

E-mail: dlm2142@columbia.edu