US Bottled Water Sales Hit New Record High in 2011

Liz West/CC BY 2.0

After serious declines in 2008 and 2009 bottled water sales in the United States have bounced back, in a serious way, hitting a new record high in volume in 2011.

New figures from the the Beverage Marketing Corp. (h/t National Geographic) show that bottled water sales were up 4.1% last year, versus just a 0.9% increase in bottled drink sales in general.

In 2011 Americans purchased 9.1 billion gallons of bottled water. Per capita consumption reached a new peak of 29.2 gallons (it was 18.2 gallons per person about a decade ago). The overwhelming majority (96%) of bottled water purchased in the US came from domestic sources.

All of that water didn't add up to record sales however, as the major bottled water companies have been cutting prices through the Great Recession. 2011 revenue hit $21.7 billion, below the still record high of 2007.

The US remains the largest consumer of bottled water in the world, with China and Mexico in the second and third spots.

Let's unpack this one a bit. There's a lot in it.
First, some perspective: National Geographic points out that while the amount of bottled water Americans buy may seem huge at first glance, it's actually a pretty small percentage of overall tap water consumption—equivalent to just about nine hours of water demand in the nation.

Second, pushing things in the opposite direction: Potable tap water in the US is near universal, with the exceptions of contamination being true outliers and isolated. So, in terms of health, every single bit of that bottled water is unnecessary in the nation—unlike in China and Mexico, where safe, potable water sources are the exception rather than the rule and contamination either through human or animal waste or chemicals far more common. Ditto for many places in the world.

Third, looking at the trend: In 2001, per capita bottled water consumption was roughly 60% of what is was in 2011. Apparently Americans prioritize perceived convenience over waste creation and waste disposal. This is despite a good deal of high profile campaigning against bottled water, and a number of cities taking stands against it in terms or city purchases of bottled water. Maybe it's some sort of unintended consequence of the health push against sugary fizzy drinks.

Where I come down on it: Both bottled water and other bottled drinks have notable environmental impact, compared with tap water.

We've delved into this numerous times, mostly back a couple years when comparing the eco-footprint of anything that was remotely comparable (and sometimes not really comparable) was the thing green sites did. I won't rehash all the calculations, but check out some of the back catalog on this in the related links to the left. Furthermore, let's not even step towards an absolutism, which sometimes reared it's head back then, that attempts to posit we shouldn't drink anything that comes out of a bottle, ever.

There are a couple realities at play in the great bottled water versus everything else thirst quenching debate.

Primary among these is that fizzy water, lemonade, iced tea, coffee, freshly squeezed juice, and beer don't and reasonably can't come out of the tap—the latter certainly comes on draft but that's just sucking it out of, essentially, a big bottle.

Water on the other hand is a different story. Piped-in water is one of the hallmarks of civilization itself, existing in various implementations for several millennia, albeit with varying degrees of health and efficiency throughout the ages.

We've somehow forgotten that in the United States in the past two decades, or perhaps opted out of it in a prioritization of immediate individual gratification at the expense of balancing it against group experience, gratification, and environmental impact—a similar situation to a number of other environmental problems and with consumerism in general.

Another facet of it: All of that is to say that while bottles (preferably returnable and reusable) may be an ideal vessel for distributing a great number of beverages, individual bottles of water is not a substitute for good civic infrastructure providing clean tap water, either in the United States or abroad. Bottled water is not a good substitute for turning on the tap and filling your reusable bottle of water, your canteen, your glass, your mug. Bottled water is not more convenient than any of these options, in an essential sense. At least it should seem so, and shouldn't be so.

That there is the debate we ought to be having, how did we come to think that plastic waste-creating individual portions of water that we have to purchase every time we're thirsty in public became a reasonable, acceptable alternative to clean, efficient public supply of water in every building in every town and city in the nation?

Tags: Bottled Water | Consumerism | United States

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