Why Pay More for Water than Oil?

Breaking news or is it? Today as gasoline hits the three dollar mark and surges above, bottled water in the United States can cost more than what you pay at the pump for a gallon and the bottles can be harmful to the environment.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “bottled water costs up to 1,000 times more than the city’s drinking water.” Why pay so much for something you can get at home for so little? How clean is your tap water? How clean is bottled water? The general truth of the matter is “it depends.” In the New York City, our tap water is usually better than or at least as good as the “pure” stuff in the bottle. Additionally, according to the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC), about one-fourth of bottled water is actually tap water– sometimes you are just buying an expensive bottle made of petroleum products!

Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, EPA regulates tap water quality while under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) monitors bottled water. These different agencies have created a different set of quality standards for the two types of water. Unlike tap water, FDA bottled water standards generally do not require disinfection, confirmation that the product is free of E. Coli and Fecal Coliform bacteria, filtering of pathogens, or testing for disease organisms such as Cryptosporidium and Giardia. Additionally, while tap water is tested for bacteria thousands of times a month, bottled water sources are tested weekly. Bottled water once away from the source and bottled in oil-derived polyethelene terephthalate (PET) is often no longer tested so bacterial colonies may multiply and petrochemicals, potential hormone disruptors, and carcinogens may seep from the bottles into the water. Bottled water that does not cross state lines is not even regulated by the FDA and is subject only to state standards.

New York City district water comes from 19 reservoirs and 3 controlled lakes from the Catskill/Delaware and Croton watersheds as well as 7 wells in Queens. The reservoirs supply most of the Westchester communities with water as well. Water in this system is checked in the streams that feed the reservoirs, the reservoirs, and the wells. It is also tested at 1,000 set sampling points once it has entered the system. For example, in 2004 the Department of Environmental Protection collected 33,500 samples from various points in the water transport system and ran 430,600 tests on their water quality. That is almost 1,180 tests per day!

Bottled water can come from a myriad of sources locally, nationally, and internationally. Labeling requirements for bottled water require only that they list the class of water, the manufacturer, and the volume. Bottled water can come from springs, lakes, or even the tap. Sometimes you pay for tap water, labeled as “municipal water,” which may or may not have been additionally purified. The two top selling brands in the United Stated fall into this category and come from taps including ones located in Queens, NY and Wichita, Kansas. Could you be buying your own tap water at many times the price?

If the quality of the water itself is not enough to deter you from shelling out the extra dollars for the clear stuff with the beautiful, but possibly misleading, picture on the label, consider the external environmental impacts of your purchase rather than filling up from the tap. Consider the amount of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, produced to transport your bottle from “some of the most pristine and protected sources deep in the woods of Maine.” Assume that it is about 320 miles from Poland Spring, Maine to White Plains, New York, that every gallon of gasoline produces 20 pounds of CO2, and that tractor get 10 miles per gallon. 6,400 pounds of CO2 would be produced to get that water here. Given that our public water system is already installed, running, and meeting strict water quality standards, many times more CO2 is generated to supply bottled water than would be if your glass was filled at the tap. If greenhouse gasses are a bit controversial for you, consider the production of sulfur and nitrogen compounds from burning gasoline that have been proven to contribute to acid rain. What if your bottled water came from overseas or the other side of the continent? According to the World Wildlife Fund, over 22 million tons of bottled water is transferred each year from country to country.

Once you finish with your bottled water what do you do with the bottle? According to Utne only approximately 5% of plastic waste is currently recycled. Even if you contribute to that 5%, it still has an impact because that is not enough to keep the bottlers going and needs to be supplemented with new material. The PET that most bottles are made of helps fuel our dependence on fossil fuels as it is derived from oil. The manufacture of these bottles can release toxic emissions such as benzene. Scenic Hudson’s 2002 study revealed that 18% by volume (14% by weight) of trash recovered from the Hudson was beverage containers. Even when these reach a trash can, they can take up valuable space in landfills or release harmful chemicals if incinerated.

For the safety of the environment and the potential safety of your health, steer clear of the plastic and turn on the tap.

Writer’s Note: Consumers can request the annual water quality report from their supplier (providing they are not supplied by a private well) if they want to confirm the quality of their water.


Howard, Brian, “Message in a Bottle: Despite the Hype, Bottled Water is neither Cleaner nor Greener than Tap Water”. E Environmental Magazine, September/October 2003 p 26-39.
International Bottled Water Association, http://www.bottledwater.org/public/BWFactsHome_main.htm
NY State Department of Health, Bottled and Bulk Water Program, http://www.health.state.ny.us/nysdoh/water/bulk_bottle/index.htm
New York City 2004 Drinking Water Supply and Quality Report, prepared by the DEP http://home2.nyc.gov/html/dep/pdf/wsstat04.pdf
Bottled Water: Pure Drink or Pure Hype? Prepared by the NRDC, http://www.naturalist.com

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About the Author: Elizabeth Aranow