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Bottled water is losing ground these days. In major cities all over the world, schools, religious groups, city governments, and restaurants are all ditching bottled water for the free water flowing out of their taps.

Makes sense though, right? Why buy water when you can have it for free, out of any public drinking fountain or faucet?

Apparently, many Americans think there’s something about bottled water that makes it worth buying. The fifty-four percent of Americans who regularly drink bottled water consumed just over 9,000 million gallons of bottled water in 2007. That’s about 30 gallons per person, and comes out to about $100 billion dollars a year.

This seems ridiculous when the United Nations is talking about spending a mere $30 billion a year to halve the proportion of people in the world who lack reliable and lasting access to safe drinking water by 2015. In a place like the US, where the quality of water sanitation and supply are kept at very strict and very high standards, why would you ever pay an average $2.50 per liter for water?

The bottled water trend isn’t hurting just our wallets; it’s also causing some pretty horrifying consequences to the planet. Even though bottled water is no cleaner than tap water in the industrial world, the rising demand for water wrapped in plastic is creating vast quantities of unnecessary garbage and consuming stupid amounts of energy.

While tap water is transported through an energy-efficient infrastructure — municipal plumbing — bottled water has to be packaged (very inefficiently — we all know the problems that come with packing cylindrical objects into rectangular boxes) and then transported long distances, often across national borders. By coming to us via train, truck, plane, and boat, this involves burning massive quantities of fossil fuels.

Let’s take a quick look at an example close to home — LaVerdes. On the shelves of the bottled drink aisles are four common bottled water labels — Poland Spring, Aquafina, SmartWater, and Perrier. When you do the math to obtain the unit price, Poland Spring costs about $.06 per ounce, Aquafina about $.07 per ounce, SmartWater about $.09 per ounce, and Perrier about $.12 per ounce.

If you drink the recommended “8 glasses of water a day”, the equivalent of 2 quarts, 1.8 liters or about 61 fluid ounces, then you’d be spending anywhere from $3.66 to $7.32 on water — just water! Whereas if you buy a sturdy 32 oz reusable water bottle for $10–$12, all you have to do is fill it up three times from any free water source to beat the price of buying bottled water. It’s a win from all sides — you pay less, and you don’t waste precious plastic.

But financial and environmental incentives aren’t the only reasons to doubt the glories of bottled water. Because bottled water is considered a “food product” by the FDA, bottled water is not subject to the rigorous health standards to which public water supply must adhere. However, the FDA does specify labeling regulations and require bottled water companies to indicate whether or not their water comes from municipal or public water sources.

Even so, the FDA’s labeling regulation is often ignored; these regulations appeared in 1993, yet it wasn’t until July 2007 that Aquafina put a “disclaimer” on their bottles stating that their water comes from “public water sources”. Also, any carbonated water, such as Perrier, is considered a soft drink and therefore does not fall under the jurisdiction of these or any water regulations.

Maybe there’s some truth to the claims that bottled water tastes better, or that it has “electrolytes” (does that claim remind anyone else of the movie Idiocracy — “Brawndo! It’s got electrolytes! It’s what plants crave!”?). But the rising costs of just about every product in our economy makes financial optimization a very attractive strategy right now.

If this country is so advanced, and such a desirable place to live, why can’t we trust our own public water supply?