Story of Bottled Water (from "Story of Stuff" folks)

Embedded here, a little teaser video for The Story of Bottled Water, created by the same people behind "The Story of Stuff" (Wikipedia). Looks neat. I'm a big fan of tap water. I spend a fair amount of time in very poor communities in poor countries, with people who don't have access to safe drinking water. For them, like us, water is life—but it's also scarce or intermittent, contanimated, and a source of disease and death. I always come home feeling totally WTF'd at our obsession with bottled water, when our tap water is so accessible and among the world's purest.

(via Glen E. Friedman)


  1. I reverse osmosis my water because my old neighbourhood had what tasted like petroleum product contamination from that part the national water carrier network We have moved and it is better but the filter still makes the water taste better.

    I wish everyone knew about the ANU Tony Flynn clay and coffee filter. It is very easy to make and would save millions of lives and probably millions of tonnes of wasted food from diarrhoea prevention. Watch one, do one, teach one, and then teach another million!

  2. And the really cool thing, that we tend to take for granted, is that there generally isn’t a thug at each tap enforcing a water monopoly. I’ve seen visitors jaws drop to the floor at the sight of a public free(!) water fountain in a park.

    1. My jaw also drops to the floor when I see a water fountain. They seem to have all disappeared. Used to be one could count on every gas station, mall, park, public building, etc., to have a water fountain. Finding one these days is like finding money on the ground. I feel lucky if I find so much as a hose bib.

  3. I’ll agree with that — I am a fan of water filters! There’s a notable improvement in taste, and not all tap water in the USA tastes the same. I also accept that some areas may be contaminated, and my point isn’t that groundwater pollution isn’t real here.

  4. Tap water in US cities (at least everywhere I’ve tried) tastes about as chlorinated as swimming pool water.

    But yeah: pointless buying bottles, when filters are way cheaper.

    Question: are filters better for the environment than buying the 5 litre bottles? I mean, there’s more stuff in a filter than a bottle, they aren’t recyclable, and to be honest I know nothing about production energy costs, any potentially polluting ingredients, and such.

    Not that they recycle much where I live in Texas anyway. You have to PAY to recycle! It’s crazy.

    1. Dewi, actually I wonder if there isn’t a slight net gain for the environment using filters–they use activated charcoal to do the actual filtering in most cases, so it may actually be mini-carbon-sequestering. Don’t take my word on it though, I have had several libations.

    2. Reverse Osmosis systems can produce some of the best water available and right from the tap. Ecowater Canada Reverse Osmosis systems are certified ZeroFootprint for carbon emmissions and the filter cartridges are recycled to produce energy.
      Here’s to a Greener Future.

  5. When I was in Prague recently, some of my coworkers were looking for a little convenience store to pick up some bottled water so they didn’t need to use the minibar. My response was, “well, the stuff out of the tap is free…”. Then it occurred to me to ask them if they had heard anything about not drinking the water (we were staying in quite a nice hotel), and no, they hadn’t, they just prefer bottled water.

    I then did a taste test between the bottled water in the minibar and the tap water, and except for a touch more chlorine and temperature, they were almost identical. Letting a glass of tap sit with some ice would have made them indistinguishable.

    The water I have here is well water that is softened a tad, and it tastes more neutral than any bottled water. It’s awesome–though I will occasionally buy bottled sparkling mineral water (or club soda), ‘cuz I love them bubbles :)

    1. Indistinguishable expect of “a touch more chlorine”? Yechh….

      There’s probably a lot of acquired taste involved, sure, but I suspect personal taste (in the chemical sense) is a much wider range than what is commonly believed and erroneously attributed to acquired taste.

      See the wildly different opinion on asparagus, for example.

  6. The frak?

    The reason you buy bottled water is that you’re thirsty. And not near a tap that you trust to be clean.

    Given the options at the Kwik-E-Mart, you can buy a number of products that all involve growing, processing, and transporting all kinds of things.

    Or you can buy bottled water. Which is likely (unless it’s from Fiji or somesuch place) to be far better in the long tail than a high fructose corn product.

    Or they can get back in their cars and drive across town to pull a liter from the tap. Which is much, much better.

    So yeah, slam the people who opt for bottled water (which is usually local), because *they’re* the frakin’ problem.


    1. I dunno, while that is certainly a common scenario, when you look at the numbers (bottled water revenues of $11.7 billion ( vs. say 7-Eleven revenues of $10.5 billion (older numbers,, I just don’t think the majority of bottled water is being sold by convenience stores. A large amount? Very likely, but I can’t find publicly available breakouts.

      This assumption means that a very large, likely majority percentage of bottled water is not sold because ‘you buy bottled water because you are thirsty. And not near a tap that you trust to be clean’. Bottled water has a huge presence in restaurants (which had better have clean taps), Costco, business offices, and grocery stores.

      So really it comes down to ‘Yay, don’t drink high fructose bevvies’, but ‘Boo, buying bottled water in a restaurant/home’.

    2. What if you filled a bottle before you left the house, saving a buck and some petroleum-plastic?

      I recognize that this isn’t practical for some, but for others it would actually be more practical, more thrifty, and more sustainable.

    3. My 7-11 has a tap, and guys that don’t mind me filling a stainless bottle. If course, your mileage may vary…

  7. It is a scary new world, while westerners are dining on steak, which I love too, and bottled water we are all heading for a world where billions of gallons are needed to process the tar and shale oils many hope wil replace dhe dying Mexican and Arabian oil fields.

    Water, clear gold, Washington W…..

  8. I live seventy miles west of Ft.Worth/Dallas, and we have no choice but to buy bottled water. It’s rare that there’s not a boil water notice at least once every couple of weeks for the towns in the area. I’ve seen everything from pea green and brown rust, to a smell so awful you have to air out the house. The green and rust contamination is really bad because it can happen in the middle of your clothes washing cycle, and you’ll have to throw the entire load out because it’s ruined. The cities have publish the water statistics yearly here according to a fed mandate, and it’s always the same. One column tells you what the threshold is for a particular chemical or contamination, and the next column tells you what the average amount for that testing week is. On every single item, the threshold column matches exactly with what the limit of that chemical or contamination is supposed to be. I’ve never calculated the statistical probability of every column exactly matching every other column for years on end, but I can imagine the odds would be better for me winning the lottery. I’ve contacted every state and federal department I could find for a few years, and ended up absolutely no where. According to the feds, it’s a non-issue.

    So, before you start slagging those of us who use bottled water, please remember that some of us don’t have a choice. And at a monthy charge of 85.00 a month for water, I wish we did have a choice. Bottled water has doubled in price over the last few years, so I regularly spend 135.00 a month for water.

    1. Well, that’s awful.

      Neither my comments nor the film are intended to disparage folks like you – or anyone, really. Nobody’s being slagged.

      But it’s fair to say, I think, that it’s odd so many Americans who have access to perfectly safe and good-tasting tap water have been snookered into thinking that they would be better off spending more money buying dubiously-sourced water in plastic bottles from a store. To drink *in their homes*, where they have clean tap water.

      1. Sorry if I came across as harsh. I just wanted to give my side of the story after taking a kicking online for the past couple of years when I tell people that they can’t ban bottled water, which is what some activists would like to see happen. I completely agree that the system has been manipulated, like so many other utilities, and that it would actually benefit those of us in the run down areas of the US since the drop in demand would cause the prices to fall again and that would help me out financially. I know the lead being found in the water in DC didn’t help the situation in getting people to drop the bottled water products. I wouldn’t use it if I didn’t have to simply because estrogen leaks from the plastic into the water, and I know that can’t be a good thing.

    2. There are many, many reasons to not buy bottled water. To me, the two biggest are the increased risk of breast cancer from BPA (doesn’t matter if you a man, your risk is elevated, too) and the fact that bottled water is (barely) regulated by the FDA, not the EPA. The FDA doesn’t make Coke and Pepsi test for fecal coliform, chlorine residuals, lead, copper, and a whole host of other chemicals/elements that are regulated for public drinking water supplies.

      To Anon@10, get your neighbors to call the EPA, too. 1-800-426-4791 operates 10 A to 4 P EST weekdays. Not great hours, but it’s something. It’s appears that your supplier may be falsifying their CCR. In Texas it seems that Alicia Diehl (drinking water quality) at 512-239-1626 is the person you should be talking to, or possibly Vera Poe (utilities technical review) at 512-239-6988. I’d encourage you to poke around the EPA website a bit more. Lots of detailed info there about what’s regulated, why, and to what level. You’re in EPA region 6. Mike Michaud is the drinking water branch chief (214)665-2722.

      1. There are many, many reasons to not buy bottled water. To me, the two biggest are the increased risk of breast cancer from BPA….

        The plastic used for bottled water bottles — Type 1, PET — doesn’t contain BPA. BPA is present in some PVC (Type 3) and other (Type 7) plastics. If you’re concerned about BPA (and the jury is still out on whether it’s harmful), make sure you’re not drinking out of something with a 3 or a 7 in the recycling symbol on the bottom. Water from bottles is fine, though there are plenty of good reasons not to buy it.

  9. Xeni, I don’t think anyone is jumping on you, certainly not me.

    BTW my reverse osmosis filter has been running daily for over 8 years, requiring only occasional reversal of the pre-filters to blow the gunk out, the semi-permiable membrane is still running strong. But cooler than that for sailing I have a surplus coastguard MROD-D reverse osmosis survival pump. It makes sea water drinkable by using pump pressure higher than the osmotic pressure to get most of the salt out.

  10. Actually, I DO fill a plastic bottle with tap water before I leave every morning!
    I don’t know why more people don’t do it!

    Sometimes, I take two bottles.

    Am I cheating?

  11. Oh, also, Protip: Seltzer is awesome.

    It’s bubbly and refreshing, and cleanses your palette.
    Also, it’s way CHEAPER than bottled water.
    At my local supermarket, one liter of club soda is 33 cents, and yet a much smaller bottle of uncarbonated water is $1.99

    I don’t pay for water, but I do get lots of seltzer.

  12. The tap water here has no chlorine in it because it comes from deep underground, below cootie level. But it’s so chalky that you don’t really need to use a glass. You can just stand a piece of it on the counter.

  13. A buddy of mine used to drink nothing but bottled water he’d buy in packs of around 20 from the grocery store (which he drove to from about 3 blocks away), even though we live in Toronto where the tap water is delicious. Then he watched “An Inconvenient Truth”, and now he has one of those big-ass refillable water jugs instead :-/

  14. Tap water tastes like swimming pool water.

    Reverse osmosis filtered water makes kind of reddish brown tea, but it’s kind of a muddy brown with tap water.

    The cat gets reverse osmosis water and then the day old cat water goes on the plants.

    I’ll use tap water for coffee because I figure a lot of the chlorine boils off, and I get sick of hauling jugs
    of reverse osmosis water around.

    The tap water is probably pretty sanitary but that doesn’t mean I’m going to drink it plain.

  15. Who do you think is also behind the increasing pollution in tap water?

    Not, necessarily, the ‘bottled water companies’, but the giant companies that own the companies that own them.

  16. I live in a city where we have some of the cleanest tap water in the world. It’s not chlorinated or treated because it’s so pure, filtered for a few thousand years into underground aquifers. People here still buy bottled water. Ridiculous.

  17. Err, are we talking about American tap water?

    Granted, I’ve been only in about 30 different cities or so in some 10 states, but nearly everywhere it tasted – in some parts even smelled – like chlorine. The big cities were usually the worst. I even had to fall back to soft drinks, triggering my coke light addiction for another year.

    Come to think of it, I slept mostly on hotels – do they treat their water themselves?

    1. The chlorine is important in keeping the water clean until it gets to you. Without chlorine, the water lines will breed legionella, and you do not want legionellosis. Even a good filter on the plumbing entrance can remove the chlorine and end up causing legionella to breed in your house pipes.

      I have a point of usage filter and it’s great; gets rid of the chlorine taste and sediments. Make sure to clean the assembly and replace the filter every six months though!

      The point Xeni was making was that the water in the US is (barring certain notable exceptions) amazingly safe, not necessarily tasty. I’m willing to put up with some chlorine flavor to avoid ghiardia, legionella, dysentery, etc.

      @zyodei: I highly doubt a 7-year old has fluorosis. He probably just has never brushed his teeth or been to a dentist. Children’s teeth are very soft and very prone to cavities if they’re not taken care of.

      1. I know what the chlorine is for. That doesn’t change the fact that it tastes yucky. I am mightly glad that nearly all water in Germany is so clean that only a miniscule amount of chlorine is required. I get at least half my daily dosage of liquid by simply drinking 500 – 700 ml directly from a tap when I come by it. I also do this that I do this in restaurants. (For some weird reason German restaurants don’t provide free water. Not too surprising, as Germans seem to prefer fizzy carbonated water anyway.)

        I’m not worried about legionella at home, as all our hot water gets heated up to 80°C in our main tank, thanks to mother sun and vacuum solar tubes. :-)

        I understand perfectly that chlorinated water is *safe*. But why should one limit oneself to safe?

        1. I’m really curious about that, though; my understanding is that perfectly clean water can still support the growth of legionella once even a minute quantity of the bacteria get into the plumbing. And the cysts can survive for a long time even if the water is chlorine-shocked, so once the water clears up they grow again. I know that Legionella pneumophila is present in Europe as there have been outbreaks in France. So what is unique about German water and plumbing that would make it not need chlorination to prevent growth of legionella?

          Legionella grows in streams, even clean ones. It can be aerosolized and can travel up to 6km through the air from a water source. So it’s almost certainly present in Germany.

          I’m not doubting your comment at all, I’m just wondering why German water doesn’t taste chlorinated?

          1. Briefly, there are several methods for debugging water, including ozone, chlorine and chloramine. The tastes are different. The flavor may change as the water sits in a container after coming out of the tap, and may change at different rates due to different chemical half-lives. Sometimes there’s an initial dose and then some areas get an extra dose at a substation, so one neighborhood might have a stronger taste. Dosing sometimes goes up after a public health incident. Aquifer water often doesn’t require any additives. Some water sources might contain more nutrients than others and require more processing. Legionella is much more like to grow in certain hardware such as tap aerators, which are required by law in some places but not in others.

      2. I highly doubt a 7-year old has fluorosis.

        DCulberson, fluorosis occurs in the teeth before they erupt. (From Wikipedia: “Dental fluorosis is a health condition caused by a child receiving too much fluoride during tooth development. The critical period of exposure is between 1 and 4 years old; children over age 8 are not at risk.”) It’s not something they can get at an advanced age — If there’s excess fluoride around when kids’ teeth are forming, they’ll have fluorosis all their life.

        (FYI, I’ve had fluorosis all my life, though fortunately only in the form of white spots. We theorize that it’s because I swallowed my toothpaste as a kid.)

  18. I should mention my reverse osmosis water is clear aqnd clean, reddish means you have problems, your system is broken. We save the bypass water for washing.

    1. That was my first reaction as well – but do re-read it.
      What is red is “tea made from RO water”; what’s brown and muddy is “tea made from straight tap water”.

  19. I just run mine though the nifty water filter jug I keep in my fridge and reuse plastic bottles for transport. It’s a taste thing really, the water here in AZ is a little funky. I do miss living in Alaska though. We had private well water that was just amazing. I suppose I got a bit spoiled growing up drinking that.

  20. I wholeheartedly agree with your scorn of bottled water, but I too have come out against drinking straight tap water on a regular basis.

    There are a variety of reasons for this

    Another one is the issue of flouride. I simply find something unsettling about the idea of uniformly medicating a whole population, without consent, without dosage regulation, and without consistent observation of side effects. I don’t care if it’s freaking vitamin C you’re putting in the water, it just doesn’t strike me right.

    I teach in an area that has high flouridation, and a large number of the children here seem to have some signs of flourosis. I’m talking seven year olds whose teeth look like #2 in wiki here:

    I spent like $200 or $300 on a gravity powered filter, with filters being $50 a year..I consider it an excellent investment.

    I always save my nice thick glass olive oil bottles, wash them out, and use them to cart my filtered water about :)

  21. Bottled water is not environmentally worse than any other bottled beverage. In fact, it’s better, because the “manufacturing” is so clean, because… it’s just water.

    However, we live in an age of wonders, where practically everyone in my country literally has pipelines carrying clean water directly into their homes, which somehow is several orders of magnitude cheaper than buying the same product bottled and bringing it home oneself.

    Sometimes the thought strikes me as I’m taking a hot shower in my own home how ridiculously luxurious my life is.

  22. Tap water here in Mexico _was_ proven (I don’t know if to this day this is true) to contain much more than the healthy amount of mercury in a balanced diet (that value being very close to 0 as my understanding on the subject goes). I will stick to bottled water, thanks.

  23. I always figured bottled water is so popular because of European spring water. In Europe people travel hundreds of miles to visit health spas were the mineral, spring water is supposed to make you healthy. Someone figures they can make a lot of money selling it and we get Perrier. Then someone in the US figures they’ve got mineral water out in the back yard and starts selling Calistoga. Then someone else thinks that their water just tastes better and starts selling bottled water that’s cheaper than Calistoga. After that comes the Everybody Panic(tm) theory that if you’re not drinking bottled water you’ll die and the reflexive buying of bottled water because “that’s what we’ve always done”.

    Like Stefan Jones I live in Portland, Oregon so I drink mostly rain but I still run it through the filter to get rid of the taste of the plumbing.

  24. There are options other than buying water or using reverse osmosis.

    Chlorine is removed by most available filters making your water taste better. However, most do not appreciably remove chlorination byproducts, which is where the risk of chlorine is. But there are filters that do.

    Fluoride can be removed by activated alumina (not alumiNUM!).

    We also know now that there are illegal drugs, pharamceuticals, hormones and other chemicals like fuel additives in the water supply. Most of these are not yet tracked, let alone regulated. There are filters that work on these.

    For lots of information and to deepen your research, please see our commercial family-run website

    There are kitchen filters that filter all this stuff, filtering water bottles that really work, filtering straws and more.

    To your health and the health of Mother Earth,

  25. Thanks for posting this! I work at Free Range Studios (we worked with Story of Stuff Project to produce this video as well as Story of Electronics and Story of Stuff). There are more on the way as well in the upcoming months.

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