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Drink tap versus bottled water

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The green advantages of drinking tap over bottled water are endless. For the cost of one bottle of Evian, you could drink about 1,000 gallons of water from your tap.[1] That 1,000 gallons of tap water would also prevent the toxic manufacturing emissions from about 4,000 plastic water bottles.

If you want to make the habit of drinking tab water even easier, be sure to keep a pitcher of clean, cold tap water in the refrigerator at all times. This way, whether at home or work, you won't waste H2 by turning the tap on until the water cools down.

Drinking Tap Water Safely

Find out if your water is safe and healthy

Most people drink tap water without giving concern for the water's safety. While the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) maintains that most tap water is safe to drink, it acknowledges that threats to clean drinking water are on the rise. Why take a chance. Make sure your water's healthy by doing one of the following:

  • Check the water quality report from your municipal water company, or
  • Test your water with a simple DIY testing kit

If your water gets a clean bill of health, you're all set. Most people don't need to treat their home drinking water to make it safe, but if your tap water contains contaminants, or just tastes bad, consider using a water filtration system.

Choosing the right water filter

A few terms and considerations you'll need to keep in mind when choosing a system:

  • Filter types: Filtering devices include personal water bottles, filtered pitchers, faucet filters, under-sink units, and whole-house filters.
  • Contaminants: Filters can remove a wide array of contaminants, including chlorine, mercury, lead, cadmium, benzene, asbestos, pesticides, and pipe sediments.
  • Filter technologies: Contaminant removal technologies include filtration, ion exchange, reverse osmosis, and distillation. Some filters use a combination of these filtration technologies.
  • Certification: US government agencies don't endorse, approve, test, or monitor any home water safety products—although the advertising claims of a few filter manufacturers might lead you to believe otherwise. Water filters are tested, however, by The National Sanitation Foundation (NSF), a nonprofit, non-governmental organization, which provides product certification and safety audits for the food and water industries. Look for a filter with a label that certifies that it meets NSF/ANSI standard 53 and that's certified to remove the specific contaminant(s) in your water. NSF certification isn't a guarantee, but at least you'll know that some of the manufacturer's claims have been tested and verified.

To find the right filter, follow these steps:

  • Determine which contaminants you need to filter out by reviewing the results of your water quality report.
  • Consult the NSF guide to Selecting and Using Water Treatment Devices. If you want to find out more about specific contaminants in your water, check out the NSF's Contaminant Guide, which contains links to profiles of over 50 common water contaminants, the health effects associated with each contaminant, and what type of filtration is best to reduce or remove it. Also see the handy table on page 16 of the EPA's Water on Tap guide, which profiles the types of filtration devices, what they do to the water, and what their limitations are.

Greening bottled water

If you still believe your tap water is unsafe, or if your private well is not meeting your family's water needs, by all means buy bottled water. It's not worth risking your family's health. However, if you do buy bottled water, try to:

  • Buy in bulk by choosing the largest practical container size, or
  • Get home delivery. With home delivery, the water vendor supplies a water cooler and delivers 3- or 5-gallon bottles of water. The company picks up the empty bottles about once a month, and replaces them with new ones. You can usually manage your deliveries online so that you can ensure you get deliveries only when you need them. The 3- or 5-gallon bottles are returnable, and most water companies wash, sanitize, and reuse these bottles many times over their lifespan, reducing plastic manufacture and waste. Opt for a ceramic crock water cooler that provides room temperature water and does not use electricity to further lower your environmental impact.

If you must buy single-serving bottled water, try these tips for a greener bottled water habit:

  • Lessen your environmental impact by choosing water packaged in bio-plastic bottles.
  • Buy a local brand and lessen the environmental cost of transporting the product. Find out where water is bottled by consulting the map at Inside the Bottle.
  • When traveling—whether it's your daily commute or a week-long vacation— bring along a refillable bottle and refill with tap water whenever possible.
  • If you're traveling in a foreign country where you know the water's unsafe, don't risk it: go with bottled water.

Find it! Tap water filtration system

Can't decide which filter is right for you? Find out which filters ranked highest in each category in Consumer Reports Green Ratings of water filters.

Drinking tap water versus bottled helps you go green because…

  • Bottled water is packaged in PET plastic, which emits harmful toxins such as nickel, ethyl benzene, ethylene oxide, and benzene into our air and water during production.
  • Eighty-six percent of plastic water bottles used in the US aren’t recycled.
  • Incinerating, or burning, used PET bottles releases harmful toxins including chlorine gas and ash containing heavy metals.
  • Water bottles disposed of in landfills or tossed by the side of the road can take up to 1,000 years to biodegrade in the ground.[2]

Bottled water requires large amounts of petroleum-based plastics to make the bottles. The Pacific Institute found that manufacturing the plastic for bottled water consumed by Americans in 2006 took the equivalent of 17 million barrels of oil—enough petroleum to fuel over 1 million cars and light trucks for a year. Most bottled water sold in the US is packaged in petroleum-based polyethylene terephthalate (PET). PET is less toxic than other plastics, according to the Berkeley Ecology Center, but manufacturing PET emits over 100 times the toxins—nickel, ethyl benzene, ethylene oxide, and benzene—than manufacturing an equivalent amount of glass.[1]

The Container Recycling Institute reports that an astounding 86 percent of plastic water bottles used in the US aren’t recycled. In the first two months of 2008, over 20 billion beverage containers (including bottles and cans) were landfilled, littered, or incinerated in the US.[2]

Controversies

Where does bottled water really come from?

Most bottled water doesn't come from a mom-and-pop business bottling water from the local spring. In the US, the majority of bottled water is supplied by the “Big 3”: Coca-Cola, Pepsico, and Nestlé. Pepsi's Aquafina is the top seller, with Coke's Dasani coming in second. European conglomerate Nestlé, the world's largest food company, has the most market share: it owns 14 brands including Perrier, Poland Spring, Deer Park, Arrowhead, Aberfoyle, Zephyrhills, Ozarka, and Ice Mountain.

Look at the label of your bottled water, and you'll see pictures of mountains, glaciers, and woodland streams—so that must be where the water in the bottle comes from, right? Not necessarily: Aquafina comes from municipal tap water in places like Ayer, Massachusetts and Wichita, Kansas. Dasani comes from municipal sources that include Queens, New York and Jacksonville, Florida. Poland Spring, touted as coming from "deep in the woods of Maine”, comes from man-made wells, at least one of which is in a parking lot along a busy road. The original Poland Spring was shut down in 1967.[3] Some bottled water manufacturers also seem to need a geography lesson: Everest bottled water comes from southern Texas; Yosemite brand from sources in the Los Angeles suburbs.

While tap water is regulated by the EPA, bottled water is not. As a product that crosses state lines, however, it's regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which has adopted some, but not all, of the EPA's standards. The FDA classifies bottled water as artesian well water, mineral water, spring water, well water, or municipal tap water. About 25 percent of bottled waters in the US come from municipal tap water, most of which goes through water treatments.

Bottled water companies thirst for community resources

The Polar Institute, a grassroots consumer organization, claims that when a company builds a bottled water plant in a community, it not only uses water from the community's aquifers or municipal water utilities, it frequently receives large subsidies and tax exemptions. Residents in rural northeast Texas claimed that a well across the street from Nestlé's bottling site went dry five days after Nestlé began production. Nestlé claimed the town's well was on a different aquifer than their bottling plant. The Texas Supreme Court ruled in favor of Nestlé.

Related health issues

Over 20 million Americans have drinking water that's contaminated with perchlorate: the primary explosive ingredient of rocket and missile fuel. Perchlorate inhibits normal thyroid function, may cause cancer, and stays in the environment indefinitely, yet it's currently not regulated by the government. According to an analysis by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), perchlorate contaminates drinking water, groundwater, or soil in hundreds of locations in at least 43 states.[4]

Antimony, a skin and gastrointestinal irritant with debated carcinogenic effect, has been observed by scientists to leach into bottled water stored over time (six-month periods), although levels were shown generally to remain within public-safety mandates. Antimony and several of its derivative compounds can be toxic (causing headache, dizziness, or depression) or even fatal, depending on dose.

Tap water usually contains added fluoride, which strengthens teeth and prevents tooth decay, although some believe it also has adverse health effects. Bottled water often doesn't have added fluoride. If it's purified by reverse osmosis or distillation, the fluoride may be removed. Some dentists recommend that people, especially children ages 7 to 16, who drink mostly bottled water should use fluoride supplements, which can be prescribed by dentists or doctors. Note that many companies are now starting to add fluoride to their bottled waters to address this issue.

Drawbacks

There is one eco-drawback of filtered tap water. While drinking filtered water from the faucet produces less waste than drinking bottled water, filtering tap water requires the use of non-recyclable filters.

Glossary

  • antimony: A metalloid chemical element (having properties of both a metal and a nonmetal).
  • aquifer: An underground geological formation—often consisting of sandstone or limestone—that stores and yields water and can be reached by wells for human consumption. Wells are dug to reach water stored in aquifers.
  • artesian well: A man-made spring from which water flows under natural pressure without pumping.
  • distillation: Distillation turns water into a vapor. Since minerals are too heavy to vaporize, they're left behind, and the vapors are condensed into water again.
  • ion exchange: A water treatment process in which an electric charge is used to remove charged particles from the solution. Also a water softening method wherein calcium and magnesium ions are exchanged with sodium.
  • mineral water: Water from an underground source that contains at least 250 parts per million total dissolved solids. Minerals and trace elements must come from the source of the underground water, and not be added later.
  • polyethylene terephthalate (PET or PETE): A plastic polymer in the polyester family, mainly derived from petroleum and used to make beverage bottles, textiles, and industrial moldings. It has a resin code of #1 for plastics recycling.
  • reverse osmosis: A filtration process that forces the water through membranes to remove minerals.
  • spring water: Derived from an underground formation from which water flows naturally to the earth's surface, spring water must be collected only at the spring or through a borehole tapping the underground formation feeding the spring.
  • well water: Water from a hole bored or drilled into the ground, which taps into an aquifer.

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