Can A Company That Produces Bottled Water Be Sustainable?

Earlier this month PepsiCo published its CSR report which touted its gains in human, environmental, and talent sustainability. However, the company has its own bottled water called Aquafina, “the single biggest bottled water brand.” Americans drank about 615 gallons of Aquafina in 2008, according to the social network site,
Bottled water can hardly be called sustainable or environmentally-friendly. A 2001 report by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) stated that about 1.5 million tons of plastic are used to bottle 89 billion liters of water every year.

Americans spent $15 billion on bottled water in 2007, more than on “ipods or movie tickets.” As an in-depth article on put it, a billion bottles of water are moved “around a week in ships, trains, and trucks in the United States alone,” equivalent to 37,800 18-wheelers.
The Fast Company article pointed out that in 1976 Americans drank only 1.6 gallons of bottled water a year, and in 2007 28.3 gallons, or 18 half-liter bottles a month. Bottled water harms the environment “due to their unregulated use of valuable resources and their production of billions of plastic bottles.”
In a Triple Pundit post last November, the author pointed out that “major corporations…are slowly but surely privatizing public water supplies, bottling the water, and selling it back to us at hundreds, even thousands of times the cost of tap water.” A public resource has been turned into a “$100 billion market.”
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) released a study in October 2008 about chemical contaminants present in bottled water. The study examined ten different bottled water brands, including Wal-Mart’s Sam’s Choice and Giant Supermarket’s Arcadia brands. The other eight brands were not identified. The levels of chemical contaminants found in all the ten brands studied, are the same as those “routinely found in tap water.”
The big difference between municipal water and bottled water, according to the study, is that municipalities legally have to notify the public about chemical contaminants found in public drinking water and bottled water companies do not.
The study also pointed out the environmental impact of bottled water. Only a fifth of all the bottles of water consumed in 2006 were recycled, and the rest “ended up in landfills, incinerators, and as trash on land and in streams, rivers, and oceans.” Bottled water companies “place a strain on rivers, streams and community drinking water supplies” when they extract water. The study calls it “water mining,” and criticizes the practice because it “can remove substantial amounts of water that otherwise would have contributed to community water supplies or to the natural flow of streams and rivers.”
The U.S. Conference of Mayors’ 2007 resolution stated that every year U.S. water bottle production uses 1.5 million barrels of oil, which could power 250,000 homes or provide fuel for 100,000 cars.
Tap water is cheaper for businesses
Responsible Purchasing Network’s (RPN) guide about bottled water alternatives for procurement professionals, Think Outside the Bottle: the Responsible Purchasing Guide to Bottled Water Alternatives, cited an estimate by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) concerning the cost of treating, filtering and delivering tap water versus bottled water. Tap water’s treatment costs only 0.2 cents per gallon, about 750-2,700 times cheaper than bottled water.
Several alternatives to bottled water exist for businesses. Bottle-less water coolers, which connect to tap water lines and have filtration systems, are one alternative. Bottle-less water coolers cost half what it does to have bottled water delivered. The cost savings of switching to a bottle-less water cooler can be up to 80 percent, according to the RPN’s estimates.
Reusable water bottles are another alternative. There are several types to choose from, including metal and plastic. Plastic bottles are usually much cheaper than metal bottles. However, supplying reusable bottles for every employee might make having a bottle-less water cooler installed.

Gina-Marie Cheeseman

Gina-Marie is a freelance writer and journalist armed with a degree in journalism, and a passion for social justice, including the environment and sustainability. She writes for various websites, and has made the 75+ Environmentalists to Follow list by

4 responses

  1. first off, I think this article does a great job of laying out how ridiculous things have gotten with companies in the US essentially bottling tap water..
    sure, the idea of an american consumer paying good money for something that can be easily obtained for close to nothing is comical.
    but another perspective is that bottled water by pepsico for example is cannibalising its own sales of soft drinks (pepsi) and between consumers purchasing more pepsi (which has a much higher carbon footprint from its manufacturing process) and bottled water, I’d personally rather see more aquafina on the shelves than pepsi.
    Studies point to increasing levels of bottled water consumption but many other studies have shown that this corresponds to a decrease in soft drink consumption.
    I’d also really like to see a study that explores if bottled water has truely won over previous consumers of tap water.
    Anyway, more on bottled water and greenwashing here:

  2. What does one do when you’re not at home and don’t have any tap water with you? Drink from a fountain? While municipal supplies are “regulated” and bottled water is not formally regulated, don’t most of us trust bottled more than a municipality? I think one reason is that bottled water carries the legal assumption that it is safe. It will cost the business too much to produce a product that will expose them to liability. If municipal water makes you sick, there is very little recourse.
    Possibly a solution is certified safe public water sources. RO (Reverse osmosis) is inexpensive (on a drinking water scale)and efficient. “Bring your own bottle” RO water vending machines such as you see in grocery stores, if inspected and maintained, could be a safe source. I’d like to see them in airports for instance.

  3. Rob, regarding “safe public water sources”, I totally agree. In the United States, you can safely assume that municipal water is healthy, though it’s possible that our standards ought to be upgraded as old pipes and other factors may reduce quality over time. In places like Las Vegas or Phoenix, though the water is technically ok to drink, it tends to taste terrible as it’s been piped for miles through the desert – driving many there to actually buy bottled water at home (kinda mind blowing, but in a materialistic culture people actually do it).
    Anyway – I always drink from fountains. That’s why they’re here! Public trust in utilities and public services like clean water are a foundation of a civilized democracy. Doubt, as evidenced by the rise of bottled water, undermines our society.

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