crowd of students filling at water refill stationIt isn’t uncommon to see someone with bottled water in their hand while on campus. There are varying opinions on bottled water use, and there is a large amount of contradictory information available which may confuse consumers.

Use of bottled water has increased over the past few decades. Some contributing factors to this increase is information from the media, sensory perception, risk perception, and sociocultural, psychological and economic reasons.1 There is a common perception that bottled water is healthier, more convenient and tastier than tap water.2 This article highlights the impacts of bottled water consumption, using the sustainability framework.

Of the three pillars of sustainability, the economic impacts of bottled water are perhaps the most evident to the consumer. Tap water is approximately $3 per 1000 litres, comparatively to bottled water, which is approximately $3 per litre. Unfortunately the costs expand on economic concerns, and have detrimental social and environmental effects.

There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that bottled water can have detrimental effects on human health. One study found that many brands of bottled water were deficient of essential minerals such as magnesium, potassium and calcium.3 Another study found that 20% of the bottled water samples had concentrations of chlorine, fluoride, nitrate and other harmful compounds that exceeded the World Health Organisation guidelines.4 Additional studies found that the bacteriological quality of tap water was greater than bottled mineral water.5 There are other health concerns related to bottled water due to harmful chemicals released from the bottle, such as bisphenol A (BPA).

BPA has been linked to breast cancer, among other health conditions.6 In Australia the bottled water guidelines are of a lower standard than the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines.  The chemicals used in the production and consumption of bottled water also have follow-on environmental effects.

The environmental effects of bottled water use are extensive. Although most bottles are able to be reused or recycled, most plastic bottles that are currently produced are made from virgin polyethylene terephthalate (PET).7 The plastic is comprised of non-renewable fossil fuels, which are a finite resource, and the use of this product encourages mining which has associated environmental impacts.8

There is a large consumption of energy in capturing the water, conveying the water and also in the treatment of the water at the bottling plant.  Additional energy consumption occurs in producing the bottle, and in cleaning, filling, sealing, labelling and refrigerating the bottles.  Lastly, energy is required to transport the bottle to retailers, and then to the consumer.9 The total energy required in the production of bottled water is 5.6-10.2 MJ per litre, comparatively to tap water, which typically requires 0.005 MJ per litre in treatment and distribution.10

Energy and fossil fuels aren’t the only resources that are utilised in the production of bottled water.  The production of bottled water consumes additional water for the manufacturing process. More than 6 litres are required to produce and cool 1.5 litres of bottled water.11 Additionally, spring water for bottled water in Australia is sourced from underground aquifers. This can impact on farmers, and may lower the water table, which could have considerable social and environmental ramifications. 

An ongoing conundrum with bottled water use is improper and ineffective recycling of water bottles. Plastic bottles were one of the ten most common items picked up on Clean up Australia Day. Once these bottles are in the environment, they can take up to 450 years to biodegrade. There is a prevalent belief that the environmental impacts of bottled water production and consumption are mitigated through recycling practices.12 However, when recycling is appropriately undertaken it only saves 1/3 of the energy in the production stage. Additionally, the quality of the plastic degrades each time it is recycled, thus limiting the quantity of times plastic can be recycled.  Therefore, reducing your bottled water consumption by using your own durable bottle is the preferred option for you, your back pocket, and the environment.

1 McLeod, L, Bharadway, L and Waldner, C 2014, 'Risk Factors Associated with the Choice to Drink Bottled Water and Tap Water in Rural Saskatchewan.

2 Saylor, A, Prokopy, LS and Amberg, S 2011, ‘What’s Wrong with the Tap? Examining Perceptions of Tap Water and Bottled Water at Purdue University’, Environmental Management, vol. 48, pp. 588-601.

3 Mahajan, RK, Walia, TPS, Lark, BS and Sumanjit 2006, ‘Analysis of physical and chemical parameters of bottled drinking water’, International Journal of Environmental Health Research, vol. 16, iss. 2, pp. 89-98.

4 Cidu, R, Frau, F and Tore, P 2011, ‘Drinking water quality: Comparing inorganic components in bottled water and Italian tap water’, Journal of Food Composition and Analysis, vol. 24, pp. 184-93.

5 da Silva, MEZ, Santana, RG, Guilhermetti, M, Filho, IC, Endo, EH, Ueda-Nakamura, T, Nakamura, CV and Filho, BPD 2008, ‘Comparison of the bacteriological quality of tap water and bottled mineral water’, International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health, vol. 211, pp. 504-9.

6 Yang, M, Ryu, JH, Jeon, R, Kang, D and Yoo, KY 2009, ‘Effects of bisphenol A on breast cancer and its risk factors’, Archives of Toxicology, vol. 83, pp. 281-5.

7 Gleick, PH and Cooley, HS 2009, ‘Energy Implications of Bottled Water’, Environmental Research Letters, vol. 4.

8 Hawkins, G 2011, ‘Packaging water: plastic bottles as market and public devices’, Economy and Society, vol. 40, no. 4, pp. 534-52.

9 Yang et al. 2009

10 Yang et al. 2009

11 Niccolucci, V, Botto, S, Rugani, B, Nicolardi, V, Bastianoni, S and Gaggi, C 2011, ‘The real water consumption behind drinking water: The case of Italy’, Journal of Environmental Management, vol. 92, pp. 2611-18.

12 Saylor et al. 2011