Whether it’s for taste or convenience, many prefer bottled water to tap water. Some may even believe it’s the safer option. The fact is, everybody seems to be carrying a water bottle these days and not just when exercising. Constantly sipping water has become a habit and no one doubts it is healthier than soft drinks, but is it worth the price? Especially when you could be drinking tap water in a bottle?
The United States is the largest market for bottled water in the world, but after years of booming sales, companies are beginning to see declines in revenues. Consumers are going back to tap water for a number of reasons, including concerns over costs and the environmental impact of plastic bottles. The National Association of PET Container Resources boasts water bottles have a better recycling rate than any other household container, though it is barely over 30 percent. However it’s not only the disposal that concerns environmental groups, but the production and shipping of such massive quantities of plastic bottles.
Bottled water’s dropping sales
In response to this shift in consumer habits, water bottlers are switching their message and focusing on new targets. Food & Water Watch, a non-profit public interest organization has been following Nestle’s strategies in the U.S. In their report, Hanging on for Pure Life, this national consumer advocate explains how the largest water bottler in the world is bottling tap water, to compete in price with companies such as PepsiCo and Coca-Cola, and targeting the Hispanic market in its advertising.
According to the report, Nestle has gone as far as to open a store dedicated to bottled water, Pure Life Mercado del Agua, in the Bronx. Ironic considering New York City is known for having one of the best tap waters in the nation. The company’s purpose behind this move is to get close to Hispanic moms new to this country and all those who traditionally didn’t have access to safe tap water and see bottled water as the best alternative for their family.
But is it really safer? The environmental action group Natural Resources Defense Council says not necessarily, after four years of studying and testing bottled water. Tap water follows the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) standards; bottled water is regulated by the FDA as a food product. The FDA sets the limits of contaminants in bottled water and requires bottlers to specify the source of their water on the label. The terms used may be confusing, however, so even if we check the label, some of us still don’t know what we are drinking.
Bottled water, just like tap water, can come from a ground source, such as a spring or well; or a surface source, which can be a river or a lake. Most bottled water comes from ground water sources, which have a more consistent taste over time and are less likely to be contaminated. Still, the presence of contaminants can be the result of natural deposits, of arsenic or nitrates for instance, or caused by human and industrial waste.
What is in the bottle?
It is estimated that almost 50 percent of bottled water comes from municipal surface sources, just like tap water. The International Bottled Water Association (IBWA), which groups the major bottling companies worldwide, insists it is “not just tap water in a bottle” like critical voices imply. Indeed, in most cases the water is further treated by the bottling company, reducing the level of contaminants. The process used to purify the water, generally ozonation, reverse osmosis or ultraviolet light, leaves no taste.
How is all this reflected on the label? The following terms, set by the FDA, are used:
- Artesian water, ground water, spring water, well water: water from an underground aquifer, which may or may not be treated.
- Mineral water: Ground water that naturally contains 250 or more parts per million of total dissolved solids.
- Distilled water: steam from boiling water is recondensed and bottled. Distilling water kills microbes and removes water’s natural minerals.
- Purified water: water from any source treated to meet the U.S. Pharmacopeia definition of purified water. It is essentially free of all chemicals, but may have microbes.
- Sterile water: water from any source treated to meet the U.S. Pharmacopeia standards for sterilization. Sterilized water is free from all microbes.
- Drinking water: water intended for human consumption and sealed in bottles or other containers.
So unless the label specifically states it’s spring water—or artesian, well or ground water—it’s probably municipal tap water. Terms like “mountain water” or “glacier water” are not regulated and do not necessarily refer to spring water. As for carbonated water, soda, seltzer, sparkling and tonic water, all are considered soft drinks and not regulated by the FDA as bottled water.