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Sip on that: Environmental damage of bottled water revealed

The Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal) recently calculated the true costs of bottled water’s production, bottling, distribution, usage, and disposal.

The average plastic bottle of water costs $1.29. The water itself accounts for less than $0.00001 and the rest is a markup based on plastic bottle production, including packaging, marketing, and other factors to increase the price. Image by H.A.W.C 101 (CC BY-SA 4.0)
The average plastic bottle of water costs $1.29. The water itself accounts for less than $0.00001 and the rest is a markup based on plastic bottle production, including packaging, marketing, and other factors to increase the price. Image by H.A.W.C 101 (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The environmental impact of bottled water has often been questioned; now new research reveals the full extent of the environmental impact and societal cost. The message from the research findings is clear: provided you are in an area where tap water is safe, drinking tap water rather than bottled water is the correct decision in relation to minimising the damage to the environment.

The research finds that the negative effect of bottled water on natural resources is some 3,500 times higher than for mains provided drinking water. The study was specific, although the results are generalizable.

Ecological costs

The study, from the Barcelona Institute for Global Health, looked at the use of bottled water in Barcelona. Modelling the consumption of bottled water to the maximum scale, the research calculated that if the entire population of the city were drink bottled water, this would produce a cost some 3,500 times higher in terms of resource extraction when compared with a model where everyone drank tap water.

The cost, if bottled water was the 100 percent choice, came out at $83.9 million per year. The impact of bottled water upon ecosystems was additionally found to be 1,400 times higher than tap water.

As an example, the research finds that plastic production processes are responsible for non-renewable resource depletion and for the emission of harmful pollutants (such as greenhouse gases, particulate matter) into the environment.

Startling statistics

Of course, this is an idealized model whereas in reality a proportion of the population will drink bottled water, a proportion tap water, and many will consume both.

Commenting on the study to The Guardian, lead researcher Cristina Villanueva states: “Health reasons don’t justify the wide use of bottled water. Yes, strictly speaking, drinking tap water is worse for local health, but when you weigh both, what you gain from drinking bottled water is minimal. It’s quite obvious that the environmental impacts of bottled water are higher compared to tap water.”

Alternatives to bottled water

The researchers hope that the data leads to a reduction in bottled water consumption, although it acknowledges that are targeted reduction will need to be supported by appropriate policies from governments, such as educational campaigns and restrictions on advertising bottled water. In addition, infrastructure changes may be needed to provide more drinking fountains in public spaces.  

The research appears in the journal Science of the Total Environment, titled “Health and environmental impacts of drinking water choices in Barcelona, Spain: A modelling study.”

Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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