Bottled Water: An American Indulgence

While traveling in Argentina I observed that many of the older women had “young” figures. However, they had horribly wrinkly skin. I also observed that water is rarely served in as much quantities as in the US. Go to a restaurant, and you are lucky to see an Argentine drink one glass. And rarely do you see a water bottle in someone’s hand.

I also read this interesting article from Fast Company — Message in a Bottle — that discusses the bottled water US phenomenon.

30 years ago, bottled water didn’t really exist. Now, it is a $16 billion industry — that’s larger than the US Box Office and Ipods. In fact, the number one selling item, per unit, at Whole Foods is bottled water. Not bad for $1.35 per plastic bottle! But here are some things to consider.

  • 50% of the population of Fiji doesn’t have access to safe water. Yet that doesn’t stop the the import of Fiji Water, and the premium price paid for it.
  • 1 in 6 humans do not have access to safe water, let alone water shipped from across the globe
  • Ok, “global considerations” aside, is bottled water really that expensive? Consider that in San Fransisco, a city which gets its municipal water from Yosemite National Forest, that much money would get you a bottle of water…every day for the next 10 and a half years. nearly. But for as expensive as it is, there isn’t much profit in this industry. While the water itself is only 12-15 cents, the profit is rarely more than a dime, even less for a multi-pack. The rest of the costs — half the cost of that bottle of water goes to the retailer, a third goes to transportation. Throw in sales/marketing, and you have some might expensive tap water shipped to your local grocer all the way from Fiji.

    Ok, so it’s expensive, but it’s worth it because it’s full of minerals and such, right? Not really. Coke and Pepsi (aka Dasani and Aquafina), which own nearly a quarter of the market share, are just purified municipal water. That is — it’s about the same as running your tap water through a filter.

    So why do people buy this expensive purified municipal water? That’s quite the expensive convenience! I suppose it’s better than the other option: sugary carbonated beverages. But I think the article said it best: maybe if we considered the impact of of purchases — how much energy went into shipping it here, did it help a community if not my own — rather than only considering if we are getting the best value, we could really make a difference with our purchasing power.

    For me? Tap water for me at the restaurants. Filtered water at home. And I’m going to continue to keep my empty bottle in my car when I fill ‘er up at the gas station.

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4 thoughts on “Bottled Water: An American Indulgence

  1. I agre with you 100%, one other aspect is to look at all the pollution and waste created from the platic bottle that th water comes in.
    Its unbelievable that billions of plastic water bottles every year end up in landfills or burned or in our waterways and thats just in the U.S….

  2. If you calculate the price per volume (PPV) of tap water run through a Pur filter attached to your faucet, and compare that to the price of “discount” bottles water — such as the CostCo Kirkland house brand — you will find that the PPV is fairly similar. However, there is still the inconvenience of transporting said water from the store to your fridge versus just pouring it from the tap filter into bottles and chilling them. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

  3. Some other interesting takes on bottled water:

    – Most bottled water lacks the addition of fluoride that you find in tap water leading to an increase in tooth decay and other health problems.
    – Starbucks was the first major retailer of bottled water to contribute a portion of their proceeds to a global/environmental cause.
    – The water found in Dasani and Acquifina goes through a rigorous purification process and is more “pure” than most spring waters which typically contain high levels of minerals and other elements, such as arsenic.

    Regarding the global impact…

    – It’s estimated that some 6,000 people die PER DAY in Africa due to a lack of access to drinking water.
    – Check out Project Blood Water for more info http://www.bloodwatermission.com/index.php

    In that light, just imagine what that $16bn could do to remedy that situation. It’s a real shame. Thanks for this post — great topic!

  4. Allen, I think you have a sound argument re: PPV — that once you consider the cost of infrastructure perhaps there isn’t much difference in the cost between a bottle of tap water and a bottle of bottled water. The problem is that the infrastructure is already paid. That’s like comparing my monthly bill on my 1995 car and someone’s new 2005 car. Except it’s not the same, because I’ve paid off that car years ago.

    Paying for distribution, marketing and transportation of bottled water is paying on a per basis, which is needlessly expensive for something you know you are going to need — water.

    There is definitely strong argument for bottled water in regions of unsafe water (e.g. when you are in mexico) or simply in the matter of convenience. But we should also recognize that this is an expensive and wasteful convenience. Not that that doesn’t stop me from eating meat over my greens ,but I do want to call an indulgence when I see it, and maybe make others aware of how their behavior and purchasing behavior effects others.

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