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August 3, 2005 11:06 AM

Broken: Bottled water economics

Provocative article on the economics of bottled water. I'm not claiming the high ground, since I buy bottled water a lot for the convenience. But here are the facts:

"Ounce for ounce, it costs more than gasoline, even at today's high gasoline prices; depending on the brand, it costs 250 to 10,000 times more than tap water. Globally, bottled water is now a $46 billion industry."

"Clean water could be provided to everyone on earth for an [extra] outlay of $1.7 billion a year... this is less than a quarter of global annual spending on bottled water."



Posted by: Joshua Wood at August 3, 2005 11:22 AM

Yeah bottled water is pretty idiotic. I love the ones named after springs etc., and you find out that it's coming from a municiple tap. Where I used to live a water bottling place seriously lowered the aquifer and a lot of people had to dig their wells deeper.

Posted by: Joshua Wood at August 3, 2005 11:23 AM

I've always thought that what was so tragic about all bottled drinks (water, soda, beer) is that the containers are not really reused. I'm not talking about recycling--i'm talking about *reuse*. There's a Coke bottle sitting on my desk that I've been filling with water for weeks now---why can't I pay a vending machine a few cents to clean, refill and recap this bottle?

I am not an economist, but my impression is that economies tend to find the shortest path to prosperity, not necessarily the optimal path leading the greatest good. Retooling vending machines and redesigning bottles would require signficiant outlay, but I speculate that the overall gains would be profound.

Posted by: Robby Slaughter at August 3, 2005 11:40 AM

I'm with you, Robby, that makes good sense. The vending machine isn't going to be full all the time... why not put a little hole near the top where you could insert your used bottle, and it roll down where one of the vended bottles used to be for storage. Then when the machine was serviced, they could either reuse the bottles or at least recycle them.

As long as the machine didn't sell me an empty bottle, I'd be fine with this.

Posted by: James Schend at August 3, 2005 12:24 PM

James, your idea is even better than my original suggestion, which was just to have the vending machines refill bottles. It turns out that empties don't need to be refrigerated, so there's no need to put them back into the machine in the same place (or even into the same machine). You could have an adjacent machine that accepts empties and spits out a cash refund on the "bottle deposit", which would you then pump into the vending machine.

Anybody have any experience with vending machines or beverage distribution that could contribute or deflate this idea?

Posted by: Robby Slaughter at August 3, 2005 12:28 PM

I really don't think the reuse vending machine would be all that great. Have you ever used one of those bottle return machines at a supermaket? They're messy with sticky soda and beer. There are also safetly concerns. Glass bottles may break, and you shouldn't reuse most plastic bottles because they can leach chemicals into your drink. I guess if these problems could be eliminated, then it would be a good option.

As far as bottled water goes, I think it's better to filter water at home. I have a Berkey filter that removes bacteria and chemicals, and can even make stream water safe to drink.

Posted by: dx27s at August 3, 2005 12:45 PM

I disagree with the fact that gasoline costs more than water. It does cost money to filter water, and we consume water less quickly than we consume gas.

Also, Robby, dx27s, and James, I have to go against your idea. It could work, but I can guarantee that very few people would put bottles back into the vending machines, and the feature would end up costing the vendors money.

However, the fact that we could use a fourth of the money we use on bottled water to get clean water to everyone in the world is broken.

Posted by: Kevin at August 3, 2005 01:21 PM

I know firsthand of one drink company that does reuse their bottles. Ale-8-One in central Kentucky (which does not have a bottle deposit law) sells returnable/reusable glass bottles with a deposit, as well as disposables (glass and plastic).

Here is a story about an attempt to legislate reusable containers in Maine. The article also mentions that 80% of beer in Ontario is sold in refillable bottles.

Posted by: cmadler at August 3, 2005 01:32 PM

Get one of those faucet filters, like Pur. That's more than enough. Those reverse osmosis, under-the-sink units with tanks and giant filters is extreme overkill for most municipal water systems.

Posted by: Citizen Of Trantor at August 3, 2005 02:02 PM

anyone have a good reason why there is no deposit on water bottles(except the ones which go on coolers)but there is on soft drink bottles?

Posted by: Sean P at August 3, 2005 02:06 PM

_@_v - why do you think "evian" is "naive" spelled backwards?

Posted by: she-snailie_@_v at August 3, 2005 03:45 PM

It's more fair to compare gasoline prices with tap water prices, or with water delivered from a water tanker, not with bottled water prices. If gasoline were sold in 1 liter containers, then you'd have a viable comparison. With bottled water, you're mostly paying for the container.

Posted by: Another Bob at August 3, 2005 05:52 PM

And dx27s, re-used bottles do not leech dangerous chemicals into the water. If they did, then the chemicals would leech into the original contents as well. There is nothing wrong with re-using plastic bottles.

Posted by: Fayth at August 3, 2005 07:25 PM

re: Fayth

the heat from hot water does something to the bottles. thats were the leaching comes from. most plastic drink bottles aren't meant to be reused, unless its stated.

Posted by: ian at August 4, 2005 01:38 AM

As I understand it the problem with reusing water bottles is bacteria it they are not washed, and the soap and heat when you wash them causes chemicals to leech into whatever you put into them.

Also I think someone told me that putting juice or other bevrages into bottles made for water can also cause them to leech chemicals.

Posted by: Sean P at August 4, 2005 10:21 AM

If someone sees your "natural spring water" bottle filled with Coke, they're going to have serious doubts about the cleanliness of the spring...

Posted by: Fuzzy at August 4, 2005 10:53 AM

The US isn't the only market for bottled water. In a lot of places it's the best way to get drinking water. Even in extremely modern places like Hong Kong it's a better way to go as anyone who's been there in May would agree with me on. I use a Nalgene at work and home but a lot of times I don't want to carry a bottle around with me.

Shouldn't we be rallying against the soda industry? Coke and Pepsi are more expensive than bottled water and are actually harmful to human beings instead of just being water.

Posted by: James at August 4, 2005 12:30 PM

Have you ever heard of pairing water with food? Yes, its true there are water connoisseurs who must have the right water to go with their filet mignon. The site at (started by my former boss) tells you more than you would ever want to know about bottled waters of the world. Note, it is 100% serious. ;)

Posted by: Christine at August 4, 2005 02:27 PM

I think many folks are missing a bigger point about bottled water and that is the privatization of a natural resource that should be free to all. Corporations pollute water ways to that water is not clean to drink, then they make a mint off of selling a common good back to a very naive public. Countries around the world are fighting to keep access to clean water out of the greedy hands of corporations.

Environmentally there are issues such as the chemical process of creating plasticand the associated toxins that are released into the air and water, the process of "recycling" plastic releases a similar number of toxins.

The problem for me is the fact that people eagerly accept bottle water, even consider it chic when it is a basic human right to have access to clean drinking water.

And yes it is safer in developing countries but that is a stop gap solution, wouldn't it make sense to provide clean drinking water to everyone regardless of economic class?

Anyway, today we talk about bottled water, one day in the future we will be talking about the conflit over access to water.

Posted by: Michelle at August 4, 2005 03:05 PM

"Shouldn't we be rallying against the soda industry? Coke and Pepsi are more expensive than bottled water and are actually harmful to human beings instead of just being water."

Umm, no. Go to any gas station, Coke, Pepsi, and water (Dasani, Aquafina) all cost the same, $1.19 for a 20 oz. bottle. Premium water brands cost more. Needless to say, beer/malt liquor is your best bet (I can get a 32 oz. King Cobra malt liquor for $1.29) or possibly even wine ($3 or so for a 750 ml bottle of Boones), or 2 liter bottles of soda (often 99 cents).

Posted by: J.Ja at August 4, 2005 05:58 PM

Well, my only thought on bottled water is when I see Evian labels. Spelled backwards it's NAIVE!

Posted by: Dave at August 5, 2005 03:26 AM

The fact is, bottled water is very cheap tpo produce... it is expensive to transport, and it is also marked up as it goes through various middle men before it gets to the end user... most bottlers do not make most of the profit, anyone who has ever worked ın manufacturing, or retail knows how the markup scenario works through the supply chain.

Second, cleaning a bottle costs both water and money. Unless there are government incentives or requirements to add a new machine to the manufacturing line, it won,t happen... you have to add freight, storage facilities, reeducate labor, and redesign factory floors.. all are difficult, and consume time and money... with big bottles like the ones delivered to your home, those are cleaned and refilled and sent back to your home.

The point made earlier is that yes, the cheapest thing to do is to provide clean tap water... at least in developed countries where there is a infrastructure, but againd this would take a lot of members of the public getting together to demand this, and somehow (bribe) convince the municipalities that this is waht they want and this is waht they will get....

In the meantime, get a faucet purifier, or boil your water. you pay for convenience, its a choice not a requirement.

Posted by: mvb at August 5, 2005 01:37 PM

Not true! Here are some assorted observations and unsupported assertions:

Here in Southern CA where the tap water literally stinks, bottled water is essential. In my local supermarkets it is difficult to pay more than $1/gal, while the current price of gasoline is $2.65.

My town has simple tastes and for every pint of fancy French water sold, hundreds of gallons of clean water are consumed. Perhaps your town is different.

I've tasted the tap waters of many cities and while Seattle & New York waters are delicious, some others are unfit to drink. Your opinion of waters may be affected by where you live, and what you think of as 'bottled water'. (I assume that some of you are talking about that fashionable stuff.)

When you add the stores and vending machines that sell processed tap water at even lower prices, the average price is even lower, and most seem to do a good job of cleaning it up.

I have a drinking water filter at home that costs $100/yr to maintain. It is perhaps the best on the market, yet the water that comes out still stinks. Every source of bottled water that I have tried makes better water.

This topic is important to me because at this time of year, I drink almost 2 gallons of water daily.

Posted by: tom at August 5, 2005 06:37 PM

Umm... even those statistics are broken!

"Globally, bottled water is now a $46 billion industry."

"Clean water could be provided to everyone on earth for an [extra] outlay of $1.7 billion a year... this is less than a quarter of global annual spending on bottled water."

Technically that's correct -- 1.7 billion is less than a quarter of 46 billion.

But wouldn't it be more accurate to say it's less than 5%?

Posted by: Aaron at August 7, 2005 04:33 PM

JW- Thirst! haha. I liked that one!

Posted by: nyackjazz at August 7, 2005 09:57 PM

RE Michelle's comment: Anyone seen the movie Tank Girl?

Posted by: Sean P at August 9, 2005 07:32 PM

"I have a drinking water filter at home that costs $100/yr to maintain. It is perhaps the best on the market, yet the water that comes out still stinks. Every source of bottled water that I have tried makes better water."

I would say there is something wrong with your filter. How often do you change the filter? Is it the correct filter, i.e., rust filters do not take out hydrocarbons? Filters need to be changed regularly or you get bacteria living in them. Bacteria give off offensive waste compounds (H2S) What is the condition of your plumbing? I have seen 1" waterline literally plugged with scale and biofilm. Consider a water softener, since it performs ion-exchange, sometimes a puny filter wont do. Some health departments will do water testing for free. Your water department is required to provide a copy of their water test results annually.

Reusing plastic bottles is ok, just remember that bacteria will grow in them so sanitize them between uses and refrigerate until consumed.

Posted by: eco at January 4, 2006 12:20 PM

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Posted by: richard at May 22, 2006 12:38 AM

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