producing, packaging and transporting a liter of bottled water requires between 1,100 and 2,000 times more energy on average than treating and delivering the same amount of tap water, according to a peer-reviewed energy analysis conducted by the Pacific Institute, a nonprofit research organization based in Oakland, California.
Popularity of Bottled Water is Rising
Bottled water has become the drink of choice for many people around the world, and sales have skyrocketed over the past few years. In 2007, for example, more than 200 billion liters of bottled water were sold worldwide. Americans alone purchased more than 33 billion liters for an annual average of 110 liters (nearly 30 gallons) per person—a 70 percent increase since 2001.
Bottled water has become so popular that it now outsells both milk and beer in the United States. Carbonated soft drinks are the only bottled beverage that U.S. consumers buy in greater quantities than bottled water, and per-capita sales of bottled water are rising while per-capita sales of milk and soft drinks are going down. The irony here, of course, is that a lot of bottled water is little more than tap water, which costs very little and is much better regulated and more rigorously tested than bottled water.
Adding Up the Energy Costs of Bottled Water
For the energy analysis, environmental scientists Peter Gleick and Heather Cooley of the Pacific Institute assessed the energy used during each stage of bottled water production. They added up the energy it takes to make a plastic bottle; process the water; label, fill and seal the bottle; transport bottled water for sale; and cool the bottled water before it ends up in your gym bag or your car’s cup holder.
Writing in the February 19, 2009 issue of Environmental Research Letters [pdf], Gleick and Cooley report that manufacturing and transportation are the most energy-intensive processes involved in putting a bottle of water in your refrigerator.
The two scientists estimate that just producing the plastic bottles for bottled-water consumption worldwide uses 50 million barrels of oil annually—enough to supply total U.S. oil demand for 2.5 days.
Transportation energy consumption is harder to figure, because some water is bottled locally and travels short distances to reach consumers while other brands of bottled water are imported from distant nations, which increases the amount of energy needed to transport them. According to the report, imported bottled water uses about two-and-a-half to four times more energy than bottled water produced locally.
Overall, the two scientists estimate that meeting U.S. demand for bottled-water—assuming the 2007 consumption rate of 33 billion liters—requires energy equivalent to between 32 million and 54 million barrels of oil. The energy required to satisfy the global thirst for bottled water is about three times that amount.
Think Before You Drink
If you imagine that every bottle of water you drink is about three-quarters water and one-quarter oil, you’ll have a pretty accurate picture of how much energy it takes to put that bottle of water in your hand.