Bottled Water's Leaky Logic

USA TODAY, August 2006 | Go to article overview
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Bottled Water's Leaky Logic


THE GLOBAL consumption of bottled water has reached more than 154,000,000,000 liters annually, up 57% from six years ago, report researchers Janet Larsen and Emily Arnold of Earth Policy Institute, Washington, D.C. Even in areas where tap water is safe to drink, demand for bottled water is increasing--producing unnecessary garbage and consuming vast quantities of energy. In the industrial world, although bottled water often is no healthier than tap, it can cost up to 10,000 times more. At as much as $2.50 per liter, bottled water costs more than gasoline.

The U.S. is the world's leading consumer of bottled water, with Americans drinking more than 26,000,000,000 liters a year, or approximately one eight-ounce glass per person every day. Mexico has the second highest consumption at 18,000,000,000 liters. China and Brazil follow at close to 12,000,000,000 liters each. Ranking fifth and sixth in consumption are Italy and Ger many, each using just over 10,000,000,000 liters of bottled water.

Italians drink the most bottled water per person, at nearly 184 liters a year--more than two glasses a day. Mexico and the United Arab Emirates, respectively, consume 169 and 164 liters per person. Belgium and France follow close behind, with per capita consumption at almost 145 liters annually. Spain ranks sixth, at 137 liters each year.

Some of the largest increases in bottled water consumption have occurred in developing countries, indicates Earth Policy Institute. Of the top 15 per capita consumers of bottled water, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates, and Mexico have the fastest growth rates, with consumption per person increasing by 44%-50% over the last half-decade. While per capita rates in India and China are not as high, total consumption in these populous countries has risen swiftly--tripling in India and more than doubling in China during the last five years, and there is great potential for further growth. If everyone in China drank 100 eight-ounce glasses of bottled water a year (slightly more than one-fourth the amount consumed by the average American), China would go through 31,000,000,000 liters of bottled water, quickly becoming the world's leading consumer.

In contrast to tap water, which is distributed through an energy-efficient infrastructure, transporting bottled water long distances involves burning massive quantities of fossil fuels. Nearly one-quarter of all bottled water crosses national borders to reach consumers, transported by boat, train, and truck. In 2004, for example, Nord Water of Finland bottled and shipped 1,400,000 bottles of water 4,300 kilometers from its bottling plant in Helsinki to Saudi Arabia.

Larsen and Arnold point out that Saudi Arabia can afford to import the water it needs, but bottled water is not just sold to water-scarce countries. While 94% of the bottled water purchased in the U.S. is produced domestically, Americans also import water shipped some 9,000 kilometers from Fiji and other faraway places to satisfy the demand for chic and exotic drinking products.

Fossil fuels also are used in the packaging of water.

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