Popping the Bottled Water Bubble

08/06/2010 02:06 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

There are new data to support the idea that consumers are beginning to reconsider their recent love affair with bottled water. For three decades, bottled water sales in the United States have grown, and grown, and grown, from under one gallon per person per year to nearly 30 gallons per person per year. And this growth has come at the expense of tap water (and our pocketbooks).

Last week, new data released by the Beverage Marketing Council, which tracks bottled water statistics and sales, show that the unprecedented sales drop that started in 2008 continued - even accelerated - in 2009. According to the BMC, the volume of bottled water sold dropped by 2.5% in 2009 from 2008. Even more remarkable, revenues dropped faster, by over 5%, suggesting a growing price war among manufacturers for market share. Imports dropped even faster than domestic sales, which is a good thing given the vast energy costs of making and moving water. It is time for a "local water" movement.

The story behind the explosive growth in bottled water sales, the false and misleading advertising, the efforts to malign tap water, and the simultaneous disappearance of our public water fountains is described in my new book "Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water" (available at Island Press, or Amazon, or please, your local bookstore). But I also chronicle in the book a growing backlash against bottled water as consumers, restaurants, cities, and others wake up to the serious social, environmental, and economic costs of moving from the tap to the bottle. I described how 2008 marked the first time that sales of bottled water had actually declined - a remarkable and unprecedented turn-around from double-digit growth. That sales drop accelerated in 2009.

Don't misunderstand me or celebrate yet. The bottled water industry and producers are still raking it in. Their sales in 2009 exceeded $10 billion in the US alone, and total cost to consumers was many times this. The total cost to the environment, of course, is incalculable. And the industry argues that the sales drop was solely because of the economic slowdown, not any effort to educate people about bottled water.

Bottled water is not going to disappear, nor should it. But if we tackle the reasons consumers buy bottled water: fear of the tap, convenience, false and misleading advertising, and concerns about taste, sale can continue to drop. Our communities and water agencies must ensure that our tap water systems provide the purest and tastiest tap water they can, to everyone. Technology today can produce fantastic water from the worst sources: let's make sure it does. Water fountains should go back into our public spaces, everywhere, including the newest modern fountains that chill and filter water. The Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission should challenge the bogus claims and misleading advertising surrounding so many bottled waters. And the bottled water industry itself should be reigned in and forced to put meaningful and informative labels on their bottles, develop mandatory recycling programs by using recycled plastic in their bottles, and stop maligning tap water.

Peter Gleick
Pacific Institute