Lentis/Water Bottles

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Introduction[edit]

The U.S. plastic water bottle market grew an average of five-percent a year between 2002-2012.[1] There are many reasons consumers choose bottled water instead of tap water. At times, tap water is simply unavailable and bottled water is the best alternative. This is especially true after a natural disaster. Other key arguments for bottled water over tap water include improved safety and aesthetics. However, plastic water bottles are a source of health impairments, environmental pollution, and high costs. The controversy over water bottles is demonstrated through participants' platforms and actions.

Reasons for Choosing Plastic Water Bottles[edit]

Disaster Relief[edit]

In the days after a natural disaster, boil water advisories are common. About 80 communities in southwestern Louisiana were under boil water orders following Hurricane Rita. Power outages made conveying the advisories difficult - most residents relied on pamphlets and word of mouth. If residents got the message, lack of electricity prevented 15% of them from following the order. For some, the boil water advisories lasted more than six weeks.[2] During these times, bottled water is essential. After Hurricane Sandy made landfall in 2012, the National Guard delivered nearly 750,000 water bottles to victims in New York City.[3] According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), commercially bottled water is the safest option following a disaster. FEMA recommends storing one gallon of water per person per day in emergency supply kits. It warns against using reusable containers that are hard to fully seal and may become contaminated over time.[4]

Reliability and Safety[edit]

Thirty-five percent of Americans drink bottled water because of fear of tap water.[5] Plastic water bottles are useful for storing and distributing clean drinking water. Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) was invented in 1941 and first used to make water bottles in the 1970s. PET bottles are impermeable to carbon dioxide, lightweight, and transparent, making them a suitable alternative to glass bottles.[6] While there have been recent concerns about BPA exposure from plastics, historically, bottled water has been safer to drink than tap water. Of the 1274 United States cases of waterborne illness reported to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in 2009 and 2010, only three were from bottled water. The majority of waterborne illnesses were related to untreated groundwater or deficiencies in the distribution system.[7]

Organoleptic Properties[edit]

Consumers choose bottled water over tap water for organoleptic reasons: taste, odor, and color. In a study done by the University of Georgia, more than 30-percent of participants were unhappy with at least one organoleptic property of tap water. Researchers concluded that aesthetic considerations impact a consumers choice to buy bottled water.[8] When a group of 87 participants were asked to rank thirteen water samples, the majority ranked bottled water and untreated water ahead of distilled water and tap water. [9] While taste is less relevant to American consumers than Canadian and European consumers, seven-percent of Americans claim taste is the reason they choose bottled water over tap water.[5][10]

Consequences of Plastic Water Bottle Use[edit]

Health Effects[edit]

Consumers believe water in plastic bottles is cleaner and safer than tap water. Peter Gleick points out that "fear is an effective tool" and bottle water companies use consumers' fear of contamination and sickness to sell.[11] Some companies misrepresent water sources. For example, Nestlé has been successfully sued for false labeling.[12] Nestlé's brand, Ice Mountain, advertises 100% natural spring water.[13] However, under the "Sources of Water" section of the Quality Report, Ice Mountain states that the distilled and drinking water sources "may either be a well or municipal supply."[13] Poland Spring, another Nestlé brand accused of false advertising, originated "from a well encircled...by parking lots" and also specifies municipal water in its quality report.[14][15] The U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Code of Federal Regulations on Bottled water, section 165.110 (a)(3)(ii) states that water must be labeled as "from a municipal source" if the water "comes form a community water system."[16] If further treatment is performed, the water doesn't need to be labeled municipal.[16] Therefore, Ice Mountain and Poland Spring, use tap water without further treatment. This water is then as safe as the feared tap water. It is estimated in the United States that at least 25% of bottled water contains tap water.[17]

Environmental Pollution[edit]

Throughout their entire lifecycle, plastic water bottles cause pollution. According to Pacific Institute, in 2006 about 2.5 million tons of carbon dioxide and the equivalent of 17 million barrels of oil were produced to meet American plastic water bottle needs. Furthermore, it takes 3 liters of water to produce a 1 liter plastic bottle.[18] Some try to justify this consumption by recycling, but only 25% of bottles are actually recycled.[19] The rest is left to decompose in landfills.


Plastic pollution has a severe impact. Animals mistake plastic bottles as food and ingest them. The plastic stays within the digestive system and causes "decreased feeding stimuli, gastrointestinal blockage, decreased secretion of gastric enzymes and decreased levels of steroid hormones."[20] Natural degradation of the bottles takes at least 50 years.[20] This degradation produces particles, which have been found in the ocean and have high levels of toxic chemicals like PCBs and DDT.[20] If ingested by fish, the particles can accumulate and cause health problems for the people who then eat the fish.


If thrown away, plastic bottles are put in landfills or incinerated. Lack of oxygen decreases degradation rates in landfills.[20] The longer it takes to degrade the plastic, the longer it will remain in the landfills and the more room it will take up. Incineration of plastic bottles releases harmful compounds, such as PAHs and PCBs, into the atmosphere.

High Cost[edit]

Plastic bottled water is an economic problem. The International Bottled Water Association states that in 2012 the U.S. spent $11.8 billion on 9.67 billion gallons of bottled water.[21] The average cost of tap water is $2.00 for every 1000 gallons.[22]. If the 9.67 billion gallons were tap water, the total price would only be $19.34 million.

The Fight For and Against Bottled Water[edit]

Bans[edit]

San Francisco City Government[edit]

San Francisco gets tap water from the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, which has the reputation of best-tasting tap water in the nation. However, in 2006, a San Francisco Chronicle article exposed that the city had spent two-million tax payer dollars on bottled water over the past 4 years.[23] In June 2007, the Mayor of San Francisco issued an executive directive banning city departments from buying bottled water. The directive prohibited the purchase of single serving water bottles, required each department to determine the feasibility of switching from bottled water to tap water, and called for the installation of bottle-less water dispensers.[24]

Concord, Massachusetts[edit]

On January 1, 2013, Concord, Massachusetts became the first town in the nation to ban the sale of single-serving (34 oz or less) plastic water bottles. This ban was community-driven and passed at the annual April 2012 Town Hall meeting.[25] On December 4, 2013, there was a special town hall meeting that included a vote to repeal the water bottle ban. The repeal failed.[26] [27]

Universities[edit]

More than 90 schools have restricted use or banned the sale of bottled water. Washington University was the first school to end sales of bottled water in 2009. Brown University, which used 320,000 bottles per year, ended sales in 2010. In January 2013, the University of Vermont became the first public university to prohibit plastic water bottle sales.[28][29] The University of Arkansas has not banned bottled water, but their Office for Sustainability supports the "Think Outside the Bottle" campaign. In 2011, students constructed a sculpture of 12,000 plastic water bottles to illustrate the number of bottles the school throws away every day.[30] Some schools are choosing not to follow the recent trend; the University of California Berkeley chose not to ban bottled water because the university feared students would buy sweetened beverages instead.[31]

Organized Participant Groups[edit]

International Bottled Water Association (IBWA)[edit]

The IBWA is a trade association representing the bottled water industry. Its mission is "to serve the members and the public, by championing bottled water as an important choice for healthy hydration and lifestyle, and promoting an environmentally responsible and sustainable industry."[32] The IBWA is against water bottle bans and has released a series of YouTube videos demonstrating the convenience of and importance of accessibility to bottled water.[33] In the summer of 2013, there was publicized tension between the San Francisco government and the IBWA when the IBWA released this statement about the California wildfires: "As always, in times of emergency and natural disaster, the bottled water industry provides clean, safe, and reliable drinking water to those in need...Unfortunately, in 2007, San Francisco shortsightedly banned any city department or agency from using city funds to purchase bottled water. The enacting rule, Executive Directive 07-07, provides no emergency waiver from this permanent ban. Therefore, if municipal water supplies are suspended, city and county employees may be left without clean water in the workplace."[34] City officials assured that there was a six-month supply of water in storage and there was no risk of a municipal water supply suspension.[35]

American Beverage Association[edit]

The American Beverage Association is a trade organization that promotes the safety of and advocates for the availability of bottled water. It argues that people should have the choice of how they drink water.[36]

Corporate Accountability International[edit]

Corporate Accountability International is an association that has a campaign to "Challenge Corporate Control of Water" and encourages people to "Think Outside the Bottle." It claims its efforts have led to forty percent of people switching from bottled to tap water, 27 colleges cutting bottled water spending, 6 states limiting water bottle purchases, and more.[37]

Ban the Bottle[edit]

Ban the Bottle is an organization that aims to protect the environment by banning plastic water bottles. The organization advocates for the use of reusable products, specifically CamelBak and Nalgene.[38]

Food and Drug Administration (FDA)[edit]

The FDA regulates the plastic water bottle industry. The administration requires bottled water producers to uphold sanitary conditions throughout the manufacturing process, protect water sources from contaminants, and test source water and final products for contaminants.[39] Specific regulations include identity regulations that define different types of bottled water and quality regulations that define allowable levels for contaminants in bottled water.[40] However, according to the Government Accountability Office, there are fewer regulations for bottled water than tap water. For example, municipal water sources are required to complete water testing by certified laboratories, report violations, and provide detailed reports to customers about water source, contaminants and compliance with regulations, while bottled water does not.[41]

Conclusion and Recommendations for Further Research[edit]

Plastic water bottles serve a useful purpose: they provide clean, safe drinking water when tap water is unavailable or compromised. In the United States, consumption of bottled water far exceeds this purpose. Bottled water has been incorporated into everyday life and has become the primary drinking water source for many. Plastic water bottles are being misused and overused. Considering the low recycling rates in the United States, this behavior could be doing more harm than good to society.


Future researchers may want to consider what role carbon filtered water plays in the drinking water debate. They also could investigate how water bottle use in the United States compares to use in other developed countries and how plastic water bottles are used in developing countries.

References[edit]

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  2. Ram, P. et al. (2007, September 1). Household Water Disinfection in Hurricane-Affected Communities of Louisiana: Implications for Disaster Preparedness for the General Public. American Journal of Public Health.
  3. Vergun, D. (2013, October 29) Hurricane Sandy struck a year ago but recovery is ongoing. http://www.nationalguard.mil/news/
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  13. a b Nestle (2012, December 31) Ice Mountain "Bottled Water Quality Report." http://www.nestle-watersna.com/asset-library/documents/im_bwqr.pdf
  14. Arumugam, N. (2012,October 19). Nestlé sued again for falsely representing bottled tap water as naturally spring-sourced. Forbes. http://www.forbes.com/sites/nadiaarumugam
  15. Nestlé (2012, December 31) Poland Spring "Bottled Water Quality Report." http://www.nestle-watersna.com/asset-library/documents/ps_eng.pdf
  16. a b 21 C.F.R. section 165.110(a)(3)(ii).
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