Bottled water: A threat to public water, but there’s hope

In his timely and profound new book, Unbottled, Daniel Jaffee tackles the threat that commercialized, packaged water poses to water as a public good. His message is more than an alarm bell – it offers hope and suggestions on how to fight back.

Maude Barlow, a globally recognized water steward and friend of FLOW, calls the book “a superbly researched argument that our growing dependence on bottled water is not only creating major environmental crises but also weakening the whole notion of public water services—thereby undermining the human right to water.”

Daniel Jaffee is an environmental and rural sociologist and Associate Professor of Sociology at Portland State University. His first book, Brewing Justice: Fair Trade Coffee, Sustainability, and Survival, received the C. Wright Mills Book Award. He received his Ph.D. in 2006 from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

FLOW recently interviewed Jaffee about the critical issues raised by Unbottled.

How do you explain the difference between bottled water and water used to make beer, juice, etc.? It can be difficult to understand that there’s a difference

While it might seem obvious, bottled water is essentially equivalent to tap water in one crucial way: it is nothing but water. In contrast with all other beverages, it directly substitutes for a good that is essential to life, vital for public health, and a key function of local government. The unspoken but fundamental claim of bottled water is to be a perfectly acceptable (indeed, a superior) replacement for tap water. Unlike soda, milk, juice, or beer, it purports to replicate or replace a vital service that has been provided by government for over a century—delivering a life-sustaining substance essential for maintaining public health—which public water utilities do for a minuscule fraction of the cost and environmental impact of bottled water.

What will happen if “competition” from bottled water is allowed to undermine the maintenance of water infrastructure for the great majority of the population in the global North who still receive high quality drinking water? The Canadian author and water activist Maude Barlow told me that me this is one of her big fears: “The longer we leave undertaking the necessary upgrades, the more the public will lose faithIt becomes a vicious cycle: “I don’t trust the water; I will pay for an alternative source; but now I don’t want to pay again to make sure the public system is safe because I don’t use it.” in public water. As they turn to private water, many will not support their tax dollars going to upgrade a system they don’t use except for toilets and showers. . . . So it becomes a vicious cycle: “I don’t trust the water; I will pay for an alternative source; but now I don’t want to pay again to make sure the public system is safe because I don’t use it.”

In places where tap water is almost universally available and safe to drink, by increasing public distrust of tap water and diminishing the pressure on government to reinvest in drinking water infrastructure, the bottled water industry is creating its own market. Put another way, if enough of the public is persuaded to never drink from the tap—to shun it as a source of drinking water altogether, as one in five people in the U.S. already do—then an increasing share of our tap water might indeed become less reliable or safe to drink. This is a savvy marketing achievement, but it has troubling implications for society and democracy.

That is why this product is not merely another consumer good, and why its growth must be seen as a threat both to the future of high-quality public tap water and to the human right to safe water.

Do you think the bottled water industry has reached the peak of its ability to market its product as a lifestyle choice? In other words, is there enough of a public pushback against the hype to give us hope for changes in policy and practice?

Bottled water’s growth has often appeared to be unstoppable. However, its major negative social and environmental impacts have generated a major backlash in recent years—especially among young people—that is making the bottled water industry increasingly nervous and threatening to disrupt its momentum. I do think the bottled water industry has probably reached and even passed its peak among communities in wealthy nations who enjoy the privilege of consistent access to reliably safe tap water. 

A 2019 survey found that 53 percent of U.S. consumers say they carry a refillable water bottle with them when they leave home, and 60 percent say they own refillable bottles.

The backlash is strongly linked to the reaction against single-use plastics, which really took off in 2018 and 2019, due to a combination of media coverage of the marine plastic pollution crisis, the impact of China’s National Sword policy that ended imports of plastic waste, and soaring awareness of the climate crisis. These changes have caused a major shift in attitudes and consumer behavior. A 2019 survey found that 53 percent of U.S. consumers say they carry a refillable water bottle with them when they leave home, and 60 percent say they own refillable bottles. 

This has also generated an avalanche of policy change, with many local governments banning municipal bottled water purchases and reinvesting tap water by installing shiny new water fountains and refilling stations. Global efforts, such as the Blue Communities campaign, are linking these cities together. 

 The industry recognizes these trends and has become concerned. Recent industry market reports speak in insistent terms about young people’s rejection of plastics and bottled water. One report states, “though the number of Americans who have reduced their single-use bottled water purchases is small (7% of bottled water buyers), the bottled water attrition rate will grow as concerns around plastic bottles also grows. There is a strong possibility that young consumers have an extremely negative view of bottled water and some may never become bottled water purchasers.”

Let’s look around the world at where bottled water sales have stagnated or shrunk. This trend began in western Europe, where in Germany, France, and Belgium, per-capita bottled water consumption fell slightly between 2012 and 2020. In the United Kingdom, bottled water sales in 2020 were still below their 2018 levels. In Canada, per-person consumption of bottled water is projected to remain flat in future years at just under 73 liters (19.3 gallons) annually—less than half the amount consumed in the United States. The share of Canadians who report that they consumed bottled water during the past day soared from 29 percent of households in 2012 to a peak of 53 percent in 2018, but then fell for two straight years to only 44 percent in 2020.

In the U.S., bottled water consumption was slowing even before the Covid pandemic. It rose an average of 6.8 percent annually from 2014 to 2017, but only an average of 3.5 percent per year from 2017 to 2022. Then, in 2022, the U.S. bottled water market slowed even more. According to one report, U.S. per-person bottled water consumption actually shrank by 1 percent in 2022—the first decline since the Great Recession, and only the third year in history that sales have fallen. The movements to “reclaim the tap” and promote refilling, and the backlash against single-use plastics, are clearly a major cause of this sea change.

What is the most important act that individuals can take to assert and protect water as a public trust and human right?

We need to recognize how the growth of bottled water is at least partly a symptom of the social justice crisis of unequal access to safe and affordable drinking water, both domestically and on a global level. Fighting for major reinvestment in clean, affordable public tap water for everyone is the best way to address the root causes of bottled water’s global spread and realize the human right to water for all.

In the U.S., there has been a dramatic disinvestment by the federal government in funding public water infrastructure over the last half century—a decline of 77 percent, adjusted for inflation, between 1977 and 2017. This has pushed the burden onto cities and caused a growing problem of deferred maintenance by public water utilities, especially in fiscally stressed municipalities, resulting in threats to water quality that are concentrated in low-income and rural communities, particularly those with higher populations of Black and Latino/a residents.

Widespread dependence on bottled water —not just during immediate emergencies but for the medium or long term — is a marker of water injustice.

Contrary to the conventional wisdom, studies consistently show that higher-income and white households in the U.S. consume more tap water (which they trust more) and less bottled water, while lower-income households and people of color trust their tap water less and consume more bottled water. However, these communities on average can least afford the dramatically higher cost of relying on this product for all their drinking (and sometimes cooking) needs. Bottled water is wrapped up in a complex dynamic of social inequality and uneven threats to tap water quality that are caused by dwindling federal investment and deteriorating public water infrastructure.

Widespread dependence on bottled water, whether in disasters of unsafe tap water such as in Flint, Benton Harbor, or Jackson, Mississippi, or in many parts of the global South—not just during immediate emergencies but for the medium or long term—is a marker of water injustice.

In U.S., there is a dire need for federal reinvestment in water infrastructure to take the fiscal burden off of cash-strapped local governments, deal with threats from PFAS and other emerging contaminants, make water systems more resilient to severe weather and climate change, and deal with soaring water bills that are causing an epidemic of water shutoffs. The WATER Act, supported by hundreds of water and social justice organizations, would allocate $35 billion per year to a permanent federal trust fund to restore and improve public water systems across the country, with priority given to the most vulnerable communities, and tackle the affordability crisis.

People concerned with protecting the human right to water can start locally, by pushing city and state governments to ban water shutoffs, institute income-based water rates, restore widespread access to tap water in public spaces, curtail bottled water, and keep water systems in public hands. They can take action at the federal level, by pushing their legislators to support the WATER Act and other efforts to rebuild public water systems so that they are safe, trustworthy, and affordable for everyone.


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