In our society, water has become a commodity (something that everyone has a right to or cannot be owned but is treated as a product to be bought and sold). This commodification is evidenced by plastic water bottles, and their prevalence in our society. In the United States we consume 30 billion water bottles per year, or 60% of bottles consumed worldwide, at a rate of 1,500 bottles per second. In a country in which tap water is virtually free, more environmentally friendly, and safer, this consumption is irrational and irresponsible.
In 2012, the bottled water industry sold 9.7 billion gallons of water and grossed $11.8 billion. That puts the cost of bottled water at $1.22 per gallon, or 300 times the price of tap water. However, if you take into consideration the fact that ⅔ of all bottled water is sold in 16.9 ounce bottles, that makes bottled water about 2,000 times more expensive than tap water, at $7.50 per gallon – almost three times the average price of gas in the U.S.
In addition to being astronomically more expensive than tap water, bottled water also takes a significant toll on the environment. Only 20% of plastic water bottles are recycled each year, meaning that the majority of plastic bottles end up in landfills. And while water bottles are made of completely recyclable materials, those materials don’t biodegrade, they photodegrade, which means they simply break down into smaller and smaller pieces over time. Those fragments can then absorb toxins and organic pollutants, and can contaminate soil, animals, and waterways. In fact, plastic bottles are one of the most prevalent forms of pollution in oceans and on beaches, with every square mile of ocean containing 46,000 pieces of floating plastic from plastic bottles and bags.
Pollution is not the only environmental concern when it comes to plastic water bottles. Large amounts of water and oil are consumed in the production and transportation of plastic bottles. It takes three times the amount of water contained in an average bottle just to produce the bottle itself, and the chemicals involved in the production process render most of that water unusable after the fact. 17 million barrels of oil are used in the production of bottles themselves, and with the energy used to “pump, process, transport and refrigerate” bottled water, over 50 million barrels of oil are used each year.
It would make sense to assume that there must be something special about bottled water in order to make all of these negatives worth while, but that is incorrect. In fact, 47.8% of bottled water is actually just tap water put into a bottle. And bottled water doesn’t provide consumers with a safer or cleaner alternative to tap water, as tap water is actually regulated more closely than bottled water, and is held to stricter safety requirements. Even in terms of taste, tap water has been ranked in blind taste tests to be better or as good as bottled water.
Next time you find yourself faced with the option of purchasing a plastic water bottle, take these facts into consideration. Every purchase of a plastic bottle hurts your wallet, the environment, and doesn’t provide you with anything that you can’t already get out of your tap.
Ciara McGillivray, Class of 2018