The environmental contrarian
Bottled water in context: comparing energy requirements for bottle production vs. everyday tasks
Published: Monday, September 9, 2013
Updated: Monday, September 9, 2013 21:09
During the last breaths of summer heat, some of us will inevitably turn to bottled water. Others will predictably snub these single use water bottles, assured of our own moral rectitude. For this week, I’d like to advocate both sides simultaneously by acknowledging the environmental harms of bottled water, while also describing their environmental insignificance relative to other mundane aspects of our lives. As I’ll show at the end of this article, highly visible things (such as bottled water) attract the majority of our environmental attention, while less environmentally conspicuous aspects of our lives (such as driving and showering) can contribute to much greater environmental impact.
In most cases, bottled water represents a very inefficient use of natural resources. Bottled water consumes far more resources and is often no healthier than widely available tap water. In fact, the bottled water industry is far less regulated than municipal water.
The production of plastic bottles, reverse-osmosis purification (like that used by Aquafina and Dasani), and transportation of the filled bottles are among the more environmentally harmful and energy intensive processes of bottled water. Peter Gleick, author of Bottled and Sold, estimates that bottled water requires 1,000 times more energy than an equivalent amount of tap water to process, bottle and transport to the end user. For those interested, there is a great resource published in Environmental Research Letters from 2009 entitled “Energy implications of bottled water.”
The disposal of plastic bottles and the exploitation of groundwater resources in small communities are two additional sources of environmental harm. According to the Pacific Institute, the United States consumes about 30 billion liters of water per year packaged in roughly 900,000 tons of plastic (usually PET, or No. 1 plastic). Finally, used bottles are discarded (either properly or improperly) or recycled.
Despite the magnitude of these harms, the case against bottled water becomes far less prominent when considering other aspects of our lives. Daily commutes in our cars and long hot showers might not attract much attention, but result in far greater environmental impact. I believe it is these decisions (and others like them) that are much more worthy of our environmental inclinations if we want to leverage our privileged position to affect positive change.
First, let’s compare the energy required to transport bottled water over our nation’s highways versus the energy required for our own driving. A typical 18 wheeler carries 50,000 pounds of cargo or roughly 45,000 typical 0.5 liter water bottles and averages 8 miles per gallon. According to Nestle, the average transport distance of bottled water is 450 km or about 300 miles. All told, a delivery of bottled water consumes 50 gallons of diesel fuel or roughly one-one thousandth of a gallon per bottle. To put this in context, a single trip to Christiana Mall from UD’s campus in a typical SUV will burn about one gallon of fuel. This is roughly the same amount of fuel needed to deliver a hoard of bottles large enough to consume three bottles every day for an entire year.