Few questions confound health-conscious conservationists more than the first one a waiter might ask at a nice restaurant: bottled or tap?
We know which is better for the environment. That’s easy. Not only are millions of tons of plastic bottles clogging our landfills, but it takes 1.63 liters of water to make every liter of Dasani—and the company is doing it in drought-plagued California.
But despite those harsh realities, public concerns about tap-water quality (and, let’s face it, slick marketing) have caused bottled water sales to soar over the past couple of decades. Ads and labels drive home the perception of purity, with images of pristine glaciers and crystal-clear mountain springs. We now have “luxury” water bars and “premium” bottled water. Some people are spending 10,000 times more per gallon for bottled water than they typically are for tap. Is it worth the cost—to you and the environment?
It’s regulated by different agencies, with different missions. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency oversees the quality of water that comes out of your tap, while the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is responsible for ensuring the safety and truthful labeling of bottled water sold nationally. States are responsible for regulating water that is both packaged and sold within its borders (which is most of the bottled-water market), but one in five states doesn’t even bother.
It’s important to note that the federal government does not require bottled water to be safer than tap. In fact, just the opposite is true in many cases. Tap water in most big cities must be disinfected, filtered to remove pathogens, and tested for cryptosporidium and giardia viruses. Bottled water does not have to be.
Both kinds of water are tested regularly for bacteria and most synthetic organic chemicals, but city tap is typically assessed much more frequently. For example, bottled-water plants must test for coliform bacteria just once a week; city tap needs to be tested 100 or more times a month.
Limits on chemical pollution for both categories are almost identical. The one place where bottled water might have the edge is in the case of lead; because many older homes have lead pipes, the EPA standard for tap water is less strict—one-third of the FDA’s standard for lead in bottled water.