Bottled Water: Nectar of the Frauds?

More fossil fuels are used in packaging the water. Most water bottles are made with polyethylene terephthalate, a plastic derived from crude oil. ”Making bottles to meet Americans’ demand for bottled water requires more than 1.5 million barrels of oil annually, enough to fuel some 100,000 U.S. cars for a year,” Arnold said.

Worldwide, some 2.7 million tons of plastic are used to bottle water each year.

Once it has been emptied, the bottle must be dumped. According to the Container Recycling Institute, 86 percent of plastic water bottles used in the United States become garbage or litter. Incinerating used bottles produces toxic byproducts such as chlorine gas and ash containing heavy metals tied to a host of human and animal health problems. Buried water bottles can take up to 1,000 years to biodegrade. —Bottled Water: Nectar of the Frauds? (Yahoo!)

We spend $100 billion per year on bottled water? That sounds like a scare statistic. The source for that figure is given as “E[arth] P[olicy] I[institute] researcher Emily Arnold.”

Arnold has published a piece on the EPI website, but that piece doesn’t cite a source for the $100 billion/year figure. That article does offer a link to a thinly-sourced data page, that shows three charts from the same source — “Beverage Marketing Corporation.”

The bottled water page of the Beverage Marketing Corporation website promises that it “discusses all elements of the vibrant bottled water market, including the rapidly growing retail PET segment as well as bulk water, delivered water and imports.” Note the inclusion of the word “vibrant” — as one would expect from a website with “marketing” in its title, the author is hyping a product — in this case, reports on the marketing of bottled water, at about $5000 per copy.

Because Arnold does not specify exactly which report she’s citing, my research trail ends here. I’ve got better things to do than buying every one of Beverage Marketing Corporation’s reports just to check her facts. The reference to the “Container Recycling Institute” in the passage I’ve excerpted is also unhelpful, since there’s no URL pointing to a particular page.

I’m not trying to defend the practice of selling water at inflated prices. In fact, I was shocked by the claim that developed nations spend more on bottled water than it would cost to bring sanitary water to the rest of the world. But this article is designed precisely to shock, and I’m always annoyed when well-intentioned journalists uncritically repeat statistics given by activist groups, since activist groups are motivated to expose reporters only to statistics that advance their particular take on the issue.

And simply phoning up a bottling company representative to give an “opposing view” leads to a war of the sound bites, which does exactly nothing to advance the public’s understanding of the truth.

I’m much more impressed by this very accessible statistic: “At up to $2.50 per liter ($10 per gallon), bottled water costs more than gasoline in the United States.” I’ve never spent close to that much on water, but I’ve seen it for sale at similarly inflated prices.