We have forgotten about our closest source of water at home -- the tap. Yet one of the simplest ways to reduce our environmental impact, to save money (not a ton...yet!) and to free ourselves from shopping and storage hassle, is by saying goodbye to bottled water. A life cycle assessment commissioned by the Swiss Gas and Water Association traced the entire life cycle from water extraction to serving it up in a glass.
Their findings showed that tap water has less than one percent of the impacts of un-refrigerated bottled water. Even when the tap water is refrigerated its impact is only one quarter of that of bottled water. These astonishing figures show that tap water is hands-down the greenest and most responsible choice.
The biggest impacts for bottled water come from the refrigeration, packaging and transport. Refrigeration also substantially increased the impacts of the tap water scenarios thanks to the energy consumed to power the fridge. Returnable bottles and jugs had lesser overall impacts when the distances for their transport were short. But as the distances increase, the higher weight glass bottles resulted in an "on the whole" higher environmental impact as compared to the PET bottles.
This reminds us that transportation plays a big role in the impacts of bottled water, more so than even packaging in this case. The origin of the water causes the biggest impact and so the distance between the bottling site and you must be as short as possible to reduce impacts -- this is a pretty hard factor to control as a consumer. Hear that Fiji? When that distance is short, then returnable bottles become a viable alternative. As the distance gets bigger, the returnables cause more impact because of their higher weight.
Packaging (something tap water has none of) is also a problem when you look at the environmental impacts of bottled water. The Earth Policy Institute tells us that 17 million barrels of oil are used annually to meet American demand for bottled water. That's enough to fuel more than 1 million U.S. cars per year. Almost 2.7 million tons of plastic are used worldwide to bottle water each year while 90% of those end up in landfills. And to think that for the most part, we don't even need bottled water at all.
That's an enormous amount of waste for water that has no real added health benefits. If you do choose to hydrate yourself via the bottled stuff you will be causing almost 100 times more impact than if you fill your cup from the tap. Not all tap water tastes the same, but the truth is that tap water is actually more strictly controlled by the Environmental Protection Agency than bottled water is by the Food and Drug Administration. If you really can't stand the tap try a filtered jug at home or a filter for your faucet.