North America's Bottled Water Addiction Comes at a Steep Price

CC BY 2.0. Todd Morris

The amount of oil required to make plastic bottles and the inefficiency of the recycling process make bottled water a terribly wasteful habit.

Last weekend I spent several hours fundraising at my local supermarket. Watching people unload their carts was an interesting lesson in shopping habits. I was most shocked at the quantity of bottled water that was purchased. In a town where tap water is treated, tastes clean, and is perfectly safe to drink, it’s unfortunate that so many people think it’s necessary to purchase bottled water in order to stay hydrated.

The fact is we’re drinking ourselves (and, by extension, our planet) to death. In 2014 Americans drank a whopping 10.7 billion gallons of bottled water, which equals 34 gallons per person annually – a significant increase from the 23-gallons-per-year average in 2000.

There are a couple reasons for this, one being that more people are opting for water over sugary beverages like soda and juice (which is a good thing), and the other being that we’ve become strangely addicted to having water on hand at all times (not such a good thing). As one commenter wrote on Salon, “How did everyone survive 30 years ago without a bottle attached at the hip?”

The implications of such bottled water addiction are serious. The Pacific Institute, a non-profit research organization, found that all the plastic water bottles consumed by Americans in 2006 would have required 17 million barrels of oil to create, which is the same amount needed to keep a million cars on the road for one year.

Only 31 percent of plastic water bottles get recycled; the remaining 69 percent go to landfills or get left behind as litter. When recycled, PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic is usually turned into synthetic clothing, which, according to the Story of Stuff, creates a whole host of other problems, such as dispersal of microplastics into our water system with laundering.

Salon reports: “If you start out with a bad material to begin with, recycling it is going to be an equally bad material. You’re changing its shape but its environmental implications are the same.”

Convenience comes at a steep price. There is no real need for us to contribute to the proliferation of plastic in our environment, especially since we’re so fortunate in North America to have access to clean, safe water in nearly every household tap. Some businesses, national parks, and city councils are starting to implement policies limiting the use of bottled water, but change also needs to come from individuals who are willing to take extra time to fill a reusable bottle, push for better hydration stations and water fountains in schools and workplaces, and be okay with feeling thirsty occasionally.