AskPablo: Putting a Lid on Bottled Water

PET.jpgWhen we read the words “Water, water everywhere, nor a drop to drink [sic]” from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” we can almost feel the maddening thirst that a shipwrecked sailor must endure in the middle of a salty, salty sea. Equally maddening, but sadly far more common, is the fact that millions of people around the world do not have access to clean and safe drinking water. A great deal of the world’s potable surface water is polluted with man-made chemicals, dangerous pathogens, or in the worst cases, completely absent altogether.
It has been said that the issues surrounding water will be the next big thing after climate change. We can be certain that the awareness of climate change will continue to grow, but combine it with growing global resource struggles and the future is anything but bright. Currently over 1/6th of the world’s population routinely lacks access to safe and clean drinking water, that’s about 1 billion people. Meanwhile, western cultures shamelessly extract and transport water over great distances for convenience and novelty (See my previous article on the impact of Exotic Bottled Water). How much do we spend on bottled water annually? How much would it cost to provide clean and safe drinking water to 100% of the world’s population?

In 2006 US bottled water sales surpassed 31 billion liters (Beverage Marketing Corporation, 2007), while global sales were above 150 billion liters per year. These sales are estimated at between $50 and $100 billion, or about $0.50 per liter on average. Most municipal water costs less than $1 per m^3 (1000 liters), so bottled water, most of which is sourced from tap water anyway, is marked up at least 500 times (or 50,000%)! Most of what you are paying is transportation, some for the production of single-use bottles, some for marketing, some for bottling equipment (filtration, filling, facility, etc.), and the rest is profit.
How many of the world’s poor could we supply with drinking water if we reapplied this spending more wisely? It is often recommended that people consume at least 1 liter per day, more if that person is perspiring or working hard throughout the day. Some minimal water is also required for sanitation and food preparation, so let’s assume a minimum of 5 liters per person per day. Compare this to the 2000 US per capita water usage of 1,430 gallons (5,413 liters, includes agricultural and industrial use). So, at 5 liters per day (minimum), we would need to provide an additional 5 billion liters per day, or 1.825 trillion liters per year.
In the US it may cost around $25/foot to drill a well (according to one source) or at least $3,000 (according to another source). In less developed nations the cost of drilling a well may be much less. If we assume that one well is needed to meet the minimum needs of about 100 people, and if we assume an average cost per well of $1,500, we would need to spend $15 billion (1B/100 x $1,500) globally. According to these assumptions, we collectively spend five times more on bottled water each year than it would cost to eradicate the 1.8 million deaths of children due to water-borne illness each year.
Finally, I will suggest a way to contribute to the solution. Make a conscious decision to stop using bottled water and set aside the money saved. Donate this money to an organization that is working to provide clean drinking water to the world’s poor and underprivileged. If only 1/5th of current bottled water consumers did this we could put an end to unnecessary deaths to to a lack of access to clean and safe drinking water.
Pablo Päster
Sustainability Engineer

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