When High-Quality Tap Water Is Available, Why Buy It in Bottles?

The world is awash in plastic trash. Activists are railing against drinking straws. Meanwhile, bottled water occupies entire aisles in our stores.

Right now, out on the oceans, multimillion-dollar floating rigs are pulling crude oil up from beneath the seafloor, from depths of hundreds or thousands of feet.

Someone paid to explore for that oil. Someone paid to design and build the rigs, which incorporate vast amounts of technology and require teams of highly skilled and well-paid workers. Oil from those rigs is carried to shore by huge tankers and delivered to refineries costing billions of dollars.

Those refineries produce gasoline, which then is transported thousands of miles across the country to service stations, where we pump it into our cars. The price at local stations as I write this: about $2.10 per gallon.

Meanwhile, not far from where I live, a grocery chain sticks a pipe in the ground, draws up groundwater and possibly gives it some minimal treatment before putting it into 16-ounce plastic bottles, which are then shipped a relatively few miles to the stores. The price per gallon: about $8 (based on 99 cents for that pint bottle).

The real villain?

Of all the reasons there are to consider bottled water absurd, this is the one that stands out for me. I can’t fathom how the price of the stuff can be justified, or why people pay it when they can get water that’s just as good from the kitchen tap for next to nothing.

More important, though, for anyone concerned about the growing problem of plastic pollution is that water bottles are a scourge on the environment. Activists have made plastic drinking straws the No. 1 villain. Meanwhile, walk into any grocery store or big-box department store and you’ll likely find an entire aisle devoted to water in plastic bottles.

Some of these waters have flavors, and some are infused with vitamins, so there seems at least some justification for their existence. But much of that aisle contains bottles filled with just water, supposedly somehow better because it’s from a “spring” or is “filtered” or “purified.”

Objectively speaking, these waters are no better than what comes out of the typical household tap (exceptions for Flint, Michigan, and other cities with known contamination problems).

Then there are the environmental costs. Making plastic water bottles creates carbon emissions that contribute to climate change and uses, by one estimate, 17 million barrels of oil per year. Only about a quarter of those bottles get recycled, so billions of them end up in landfills, littering the landscape and polluting lakes, streams and oceans. That’s to say nothing about the impact of huge trucks hauling water around.

It’s true a bottle of water is convenient to carry in a knapsack or purse, but it’s not a great deal less convenient (in most cases) to fill a reusable bottle from a tap or drinking fountain.

Here’s the opportunity

I know I’m preaching to the choir here. I wouldn’t expect to find many advocates for bottled water among Treatment Plant Operator readers. The question is what to do about it.

I would argue that the current wave of concern about plastic pollution offers a chance for water utilities to tout the quality of their product. There is no need to rail in public about the problems with bottled water and water bottles — plenty of people and organizations are doing that already.

No, all that’s needed now is to proclaim how good — and how inexpensive — tap water is. Look anywhere you want: You aren’t likely to find a better bargain than municipal water, not even in localities where the rates are highest.

A number of utilities already make the case. Some, including Madison, the capital city of my home state of Wisconsin, have water wagons they take around to festivals and parades. I wish more utilities would do something similar. Less reliance on bottled water and more appreciation for tap water — that’s a good recipe for improving our environment and elevating our utilities to the level of public respect they deserve.


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