The Story of Bottled Water

The makers of The Story of Stuff have a new video about the "manufactured demand" of expensive bottled water. (Xeni posted a teaser a couple of weeks ago.)

When Fiji water launched an ad campaign that made fun of Cleveland tap water, the city of Cleveland ran tests comparing its water to Fiji water. "These tests showed a glass of Fiji water is lower quality, it loses taste tests against Cleveland tap water, and costs thousands of times more. This story is typical of what happens when you bottled tap water against tap water."

Personally, I filter my Los Angeles tap water because I don't like the chlorinated taste.

The Story of Bottled Water


  1. I avoid bottled water like the plague. I also don’t care for heavily filtered tap water (wait, that’s basically what bottled water is). My experience has been that, within a few weeks- days, often- of changing water supplies, my palate adjusts and the water becomes neutral.

  2. I’ve always been perfectly happy with filtered tap water, but I’m not fond of the idea of paying Coke to filter tap water for me. I’ll stick with Brita.

  3. “The cost of the stuff is it’s own disincentive. So why should I get on a high horse when someone wants to spend their money as they see fit?”

    That’s a well-stated question. For some spending decisions, the price of a product gives a useful signal of its environmental costs. For many other spending decisions, the product causes pollution costs that are paid by others in society. In the case of bottled water, the store-shelf price is not nearly high enough to reflect its environmental costs.

  4. The tap water here is very good, consistently tested, very clean, and I think quite tasty. Yet I’m the only one in a building of 600 people that I have ever seen filling a water bottle from the tap.

    The only time we buy bottled water is that we will buy a 24 count flat of store-brand water (usually about $3 for 24 bottles) to pass out to the bands walking in parades before they pass out from the heat.

  5. I sometimes get bottled water if I’m thirsty, far from home, don’t feel like drinking some other liquid, and want a portable container rather than a limited drink at a water fountain. I’m really surprised that some people think it’s so terrible to sell clean, filtered water in a bottle. In my mind, I’m paying for the packaging and convenience rather than the water. Sure, I’m paying a lot more than what the actual water and bottle are worth, but anyone who buys a soda is doing the same thing. Taking water in a bottle from home is preferable, of course, but we can’t always plan ahead.

    Basically, as long as the bottled water you buy isn’t needlessly imported from halfway around the world, isn’t claiming to be something it’s not, and isn’t the primary way you get your water, I don’t see any problem.

    1. The problem is that you don’t see a problem. If you ever travel to India you will see the problem. Our waste is forming mountains of plastic and is being shipped to countries that are too poor not to take it. Do you think that having enough money gives you the right to pollute somebody’s homeland just because you don’t see it.

  6. As someone who usually brings their own water bottle. It would be awesome to see public water bottle fill stations, similar to public water fountains, but have the spout face downwards like a water cooler.

    Fountains are notoriously hard to fill bottles up with, and are usually so gross looking I don’t even bother. Also, I would have to be dying of thirst to get my face anywhere near a public water fountain. A fill station could keep mouths/gum/spit away from the water, and give an easy option to people who are carrying bottles already(even plastic ones).

  7. Thanks for posting the vid! This is the 3rd of 4 currently in the works. First “The Story of Stuff”, then “Cap and Trade”, now this, then “Electronics”.

  8. who here can really tell the difference between unfiltered tab and filtered. Seriously we ALL drank unfiltered tab as kids and probably do anytime we make things like concentrated OJ. I can’t tell the difference between unfiltered and filtered tab. I’m surprised no ones gone after the “manufactured demand” for filtration systems in our homes for those that have good city water.

  9. Most irritating is the stirred sense of being manipulated for the profit.

    Certainly the large environmental impact and frivolity of it makes for comic perspective and comparison, eg 10k sandwich, but this video offers constructive counterpoint to substantially larger marketing campaigns.

  10. Arguments about this issue always seem to be coming from totally different interpretations of the problem. As far as I can tell, anti-bottled-water people are complaining about the kind of idiots who needlessly buy 12-packs of 2 litre bottles to drink at home, not people who buy a bottle to drink on the go.

    If they *are* complaining about the latter, it’s no worse (probably better) than buying a Coke. I normally keep the bottle to refill later, but you have to buy one in the first place.

  11. For the curious, like me, the annotated script found at provides a reasonably comprehensive list of sources. One of my issues with her last video was that she didn’t source it very well, so I found these footnotes a welcome change.

    A word on “manufactured demand”. In the strictest sense, the number of things we actually need is very limited. Everything else is a want, and bottled beverages, of all kinds, are wants. To be sure, some of the advertising used to promote bottled water has been disingenuous or just outright wrong, but bottled water still provides time, place, and form utility that tap water lacks. Yes, you can fill your own bottle at home and carry it with you. But sometimes you forget. Or sometimes you’re getting on a plane. Or sometimes you’re in a school where the water fountains are poorly maintained and taste of steel and chlorine or may be unsanitary.

    There is real demand for this stuff, with or without all the ads, that is not manufactured. When I’m on campus, I will usually buy either bottled water or diet pepsi depending on whether or not I want some caffeine. I can’t carry a water fountain into the classroom and it seems like every time I buy refillable sort of bottle something goes wrong. The first one I got was of the variety that eventually got banned for having carcinogens or some such in it. Then I bought a metal one which promptly started peeling paint off and turned out not to be dishwasher safe. Both of them had to be cleaned and refilled every night when I got home. I don’t suppose the water I ran to clean them is factored into their “real” cost.

    I drink tap at home, via a well and not a municipal supply no less, that’s filtered by a whole house filter and another Brita filter at the tap. But when I’m on the road, buying bottles is just faster, easier, and more predictable than the alternatives. It may well cost more, but that’s a cost I personally am willing to pay for the convenience it provides. I suspect that demand is shared by a lot of people and we didn’t need any ads to tell us. The recycling problem is real and needs to be addressed, but implying that all her viewers have been manipulated into acting against their own best interests when many have come to a considered, conscious, “unmanufactured” opinion of their own is a little insulting and not particularly effective at convincing me to change my mind.

    1. If it’s like the ‘Story of Stuff’s’ annotated edition, then I’ll ignore her even quicker. I watched the Story of Stuff expecting an attempt at least at balance…then followed up many of her ‘annotations’ to find many of them intentionally misleading, mis-representative or flat-out ignoring data in those annotations that didn’t support her bias.

      Especially since she offered no solutions other than finger-waggling and no recognition of the culpability of anyone but first-world consumers. Which is, at best, naive.

    2. I can’t carry a water fountain into the classroom and it seems like every time I buy refillable sort of bottle something goes wrong.

      What do you mean ‘refillable sort of bottle’?
      By definition a bottle is refillable. That’s entirely the point.

      Bottled water of course comes in a bottle cheap enough to warrant never keeping it. Which means whilst some people may hold onto a bottle of water for a day or so, even this is rarely the case. Of course in most cases the bottles could be used for months before they became incapable of performing the very simple task of holding water with the lid sealed.

  12. So I guess that we means we are going to ban all the plastic pop bottles, booze bottles and every other plastic food and beverage container too? YAY! no? I thought not.
    And all this hype about tap water tasting just as good as most bottled water… I live in Vancouver BC and I can tell you that our tap water taste like chlorine. Why? Because it has chlorine in it. And not just a little. In the early 90’s the amount of dirty run off in our water, (thanks to water shed logging) increased to the point where something needed to be done. We could have chosen Ozonation but that was deemed too expensive and we went with DOUBLING the chlorine added to our drinking water. So thats why our tap water has “that chlorine taste” BECAUSE YOUR DRINKING CHLORINE. Yes we are lucky to have some of the cleanest tap water in the world but thats like being the skinniest kid at fat camp. Then theres all the townships that have fluoridated their water. Dont think flouride is all that bad?
    Yes I agree we need to come up with a better solution that bottled water, but lets be fair across the board and ban all plastic bottles and make our tap water safer and tastier and then watch as we gladly drop the bottle for the tap.

    1. Yes we are lucky to have some of the cleanest tap water in the world but thats like being the skinniest kid at fat camp. Then theres all the townships that have fluoridated their water.

      What? Running water has been provided to cities and towns since the Roman Empire! Clean and safe water tap water isn’t all that difficult. Your water tastes a bit like chlorine? That’s because the chlorine makes it safer to drink. You don’t like the taste buy a filter.

      If you think by drinking bottled water you’re avoiding fluoride? Think again. Whilst fluoride levels are controlled in municipal water supplies they’re not in bottled water, therefore often the fluoride content is higher in bottled water than from a tap.

  13. drumheller:
    Food Detectives did an episode on the myth of dirty water fountains. Downward facing spouts actually contain much more bacteria than angled water fountains. When people fill up a bottle at a downward spout, there is a tendency, whether intentional or accidental, to press the inner lip of the bottle against the spout. The inner lip is covered in bacteria, which is then transferred to the spout. Angled water fountains are specifically designed to minimize the spread of bacteria. They might not look cleaner than downward spouts, but statistics show that they are. Sure, angled spouts are harder to fill a bottle with, but I’m willing to trade a little bit of convenience for not picking up someone else’s illness.

  14. Before Gulf War I, bottle water was considered effete; it was the butt of a lot of jokes.

    When images started pouring in of military guys drinking bottles of evian the ‘butch’ factor when up on drinking bottled water. When it became acceptable for guys to drink it in public, that’s when demand really shot up.

  15. Chlorine-generated contaminants in tap water have been linked to an increased rate of miscarriages in pregnant women. A California Department Of Health Services study released in 1998 showed a nearly-doubled miscarriage rate in pregnant women who drank five or more glasses of unfiltered tap water a day.

    This was widely reported at the time, and my wife (who was pregnant) and I understandably switched to bottled water. Especially since we live right next to one of the areas the study took place.

    I just did some searching, and I still see 1998 articles, but nothing about later follow-ups. So it’s hard to tell whether anyone was able to reproduce these findings. The best desciption I’ve found is this one:

    “Trihalomethanes (chloroform, bromoform, bromodichloromethane, and chlorodibromomethane) are common contaminants of chlorinated drinking water. They form when chlorine reacts with decomposing plant material, which is often found in water from surface sources. … We examined exposure to trihalomethanes in relation to miscarriage in a study of 5,144 pregnant women living in three areas of California (centered in Santa Clara, Walnut Creek and Fontana). … Women who drank five or more glasses per day of cold home tap water containing at least 75 ug per liter of TTHM had a miscarriage rate of 15.7%. Among other women (those who drank less than 5 glasses per day and/or had tap water containing less than 75 µg per liter of TTHM) the miscarriage rate was 9.5%.”

    Actually I did find a later article saying that Santa Clara now uses ozone instead of chlorine for disinfecting tap water; this study may have been the trigger for that.

    As far as environmental footprint, I think there’s a big difference between buying 16oz bottles of foo-foo water from thousands of miles away, vs. getting 5-gallon carboys from a service like Alhambra. The water-to-plastic ratio is hugely better, and the bottles are reused indefinitely till they wear out. As a side benefit, having a week’s supply of these in your house is a smart thing to do in case of earthquake or other natural disasters interrupting the water supply.

  16. Ironically, Fiji can unwittingly help you to be more sustainable. I buy a Fiji bottle and unceremoniously peel off the front label and use and reuse the very durable bottle for many months with tap water.

    If it doesn’t get lost or destroyed after quite a few months, I replace it, peel off the label, repeat. The very high quality plastic is great with no plastic leeching aftertaste and is cheap enough to toss and/or easily replace if it gets damaged/lost. I’ve been searching for a bottle about the same size, quality and price as the Fiji bottles, but haven’t found them yet unfortunately.

    I’d be perfectly happy if Fiji sold empty bottles instead for cheaper and manufactured them in the USA. Hopefully, with enough attention brought to how stupid it is to buy Fiji water, they’ll be forced to do something like this.

    Non-flexible Nalgene and metal containers suck, are expensive to replace, taste bad and I hate them.

  17. The taste test claim sounds bogus. Which house(s) or workplace(s) of the thousands in any given city were used for the purposed taste test that the video refers to? How was it trasported to the taste test location? Did it even ever happen? Or was this maybe a survey done over land-line telephones, asking people with land-lines if their water tastes ok?

    And why would anyone believe that the flavors of one particular set of pipes and faucets would taste much like the flavors of any other pipes and faucets?

    Talk about manufacturing, the “manufactured outrage” about bottled water is the most annoying yuppie campaign in ages.

    Yes, bottles use plastic which are made out of oil. Oil isn’t doing anyone any good just sitting underground. May as well do something useful with it other than running engines.

    1. Of course oil in the ground is doing something useful. It’s being saved for more important uses, like being turned into chemicals or transporting us to work. It’s like saying money in a bank account is useless because you are not enjoying it’s use this very moment.

  18. its easy to bottle it yourself with all the used bottles.

    not to mention, plastic bottles themselves have toxic outgassing – of course the bottle companies will say that can’t be proven.

    save your perrier or miller-high-life bottles for re-bottling and portable convenience.

  19. I know it’s not the greenest thing – but bottled water is handy when the water in your home has lead. Though I’m sure that we’ll end up spending more on bottled water than it would cost to replace the pipes – but it’s easier to spend a little every month on water than come up with the money upfront to replace those pipes.

    The situation has made me miss being able to just turn on a tap and get a glass of water like we could at our old house. Appreciate your tap water. You don’t quite realize what a luxury clean water delivered straight to your home is until you don’t have it.

  20. the benefit is only perceived, not actual.

    Really? Like Mark, I live in LA. Also like Mark, I prefer filtered water – but not for the taste.

    I actually read the annual Water Quality Reports that the LADWP sends around to its customers, so I’m aware that there are things in the tap water that I’d really rather not drink – even if I can’t taste them.

    You can read the LADWP’s current Water Quality Report here. A couple of things to note:

    For various contaminants, the report shows Public Health Goals (PHG) (state) and Maximum Contaminant Level Goals (MCLG) (federal) – the levels “below which there is no known or expected risk to health”; *and* the Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCL) – the “highest level of a contaminant that is allowed in drinking water” under state or federal regulations.

    If you pay attention, you may notice that many MCLs are considerably higher than the PHGs and MCLGs.

    In fact, some are several orders of magnitude higher.

    The Primary MCLs – the ones that affect health – are “set as close to the Public Health Goals (PHGs) (or MCLGs) as is economically and technologically feasible.” [emphasis added]

    Sometimes, that’s not very close.

    Consider, for example, arsenic.

    Arsenic occurs naturally in drinking water from both underground aquifers and mountain springs, due to dissolved arsenate minerals. There’s no practical method of “source reduction”, and reduction to levels low enough to prevent all possible health effects would be pretty expensive.

    It would make tap water almost as expensive as… well, bottled water.

    And for most tap-water uses – washing clothes, watering the lawn, flushing toilets, washing dishes – a bit of arsenic is no problem.

    But in drinking water, it’s a hazard.

    The Primary standard (MCL) for arsenic in LA tap water is 10 micrograms per liter. Most LA tap water averages around 2.4. Aqueduct water (the “Los Angeles Filtration Plant”) is a bit higher, averaging 3.3, with some samples as high as 8.1.

    The Public Health Goal – the level below which there are no known health effects – is considerably lower: 0.004 micrograms per liter.

    At 2 micrograms per liter – 50 times the PHG – negative health effects are well documented.

    But it would be too expensive to remove arsenic from all tap water, so the federal and state regulations don’t require it.

    And arsenic isn’t the only such issue.

    I’m also aware that many of these health hazards – including arsenic – won’t be removed by simple ‘taste filters’ like a Brita pitcher or a kitchen-faucet add-on filter.

    It’s true that I could process my tap water to the same standards that the corporate bottlers do, if I were willing to spend about $500-$1000 on equipment and lose some of my valuable kitchen cabinet space. (And I’d waste a lot more water, since commercial RO purification systems use much higher pressure than home systems, so there’s less “rejected water” to be dumped.)

    And then all I’d have to do is carry the couple of quarts of water I drink over the course of a day with me in a vacuum-insulated jug.

    Or I could just do like the Coke drinkers do, and buy a bottle of my favorite clean, filtered, chilled beverage in a safe, recyclable plastic bottle whenever I want one.

    But don’t go telling me my tap water is “perfectly safe” – as an informed consumer, I know better.

    1. Have you read the water quality report for your favorite bottled water? I doubt it, as you can’t get one. You know that there are EPA standards for tap water–do you know what the standards for bottled water are? My understanding is that bottled water standards are pretty minimal. Caveat emptor.

      1. Have you read the water quality report for your favorite bottled water? I doubt it, as you can’t get one.

        My favorite bottled waters start with the same municipal tap water that everyone is claiming is safe, and then put it through a multiple-step purification process (which includes high-pressure carbon-block filtration, UV sterilization, reverse-osmosis purification, and ozonation).

        Are you suggesting this somehow makes it less safe?

        Or that my home-filtered water would somehow be safer?

        And, yes, I have read independent laboratory analyses of both brands I commonly buy. Arsenic and the other contaminants that concern me were reported as “N.D.” – “Not Detected.”

        It’s as safe and pure as the water that goes into Coke or Pepsi.

        You know that there are EPA standards for tap water–do you know what the standards for bottled water are? My understanding is that bottled water standards are pretty minimal.

        Your understanding is flawed. I’m not buying “bottled water” or “spring water”, but “purified water” – which is required, by law, to meet the standards for “Purified Water, USP” – which begin with water that meets EPA/state tap water standards, and then undergoes additional purification.

        It’s tap water that has been filtered and sterilized. How is this less safe than tap water that hasn’t been?

        1. Are you suggesting this somehow makes it less safe?

          It actually can, like when one company decided to treat with both chlorine (with small amounts of bromine!) and ozone, creating toxic bromate. But to be fair, that’s the exception.

  21. Oh, and BTW – my comment above is not meant to be any sort of indictment of the LADWP or the quality of its water – arsenic is a common problem in most municipal water systems, and the other contaminant issues are also concerns in many urban water systems all over the world.

    The US EPA requires all municipal water utilities to provide customers with Water Quality Reports. Read the report for your own local system and see just what you’re drinking.

    And remember, “Passes all state and federal water quality standards” is NOT the same thing as “Clean, pure and uncontaminated.”

  22. This video starts with a couple of false premises:

    1) That people primarily drink bottled water as a replacement for tap, which sales statistics generally say is not true…they’re drinking it instead of soda or bottled juices.

    2) That Fiji was hurt by the Cleveland fight…which they weren’t.

  23. I’m sitting here sipping a mighty tasty cup of coffee I made with Cleveland tap water and enjoying the comments. It amazes me how much some people seem to value convenience over common sense. I remember quite vividly when Evian started to become popular. I was more than a little surprised at the time that I seemed to be the only person who noticed that Evian is ‘naive’ spelled backwards. It’s a shame so few people have caught on to it since then.

  24. I for one value my convenience more than $30 a month I pay for bottled water. I perfectly understand that it is bottled from the tap somewhere and that local tap water maybe as good as bottled one. But I like to drink from the bottle and never clean it. When the money get tight, I may change my behavior. But right now I am happy with what I got.

  25. I have to chortle a bit at you urban/suburban types. I have a terrific well (you know, a hole in the ground) that produces twelve to fifteen gallons of excellent water per minute, straight from a spring under the Blue Ridge. It’s been there since 1840. When I travel, I take at least five gallons in a nice dispenser jug that frees me from tasting horrendous local water or the crap that comes from hotel faucets.


  26. Shecky, while I find it admirable that you don’t explode into full rant while presenting your point, your problem is your point is not very well thought out. And anyone with even a passing exposure to debate, logic or argument recognizes that the “look over there, they’re doing it(your shoe/boing boing argument)” without even providing where this argument is comparable, will recognize an argument with no legs. You need to do better than I know you are but what am I. Which is about the extent of your argument. Always asking for proof of others points without providing any proof of your own is empty thought.

  27. I buy the cheapest possible cola.

    In almost all supermarkets (in the UK at least), the cheapest cola costs less per liter than the cheapest water.

    What does that tell you?

  28. An interesting video. One thing that I fould lacking is that the idea of manufactured demand is presented like a conspiracy theory. But manufactured demand doesn’t necessarily need scare add campaigns. All it needs is an existing product.
    The logic is simple: If bottled water was unnecessary, it would not be produced because noone would buy it. In a way, manufactured demand is the wisdon of the crowds turned into the stupidity of the crowds.
    It’s a selfreinforcing tautology: Bottled water makes sense, because people buy it. I buy bottled water, because it makes sense.

    It works for other products as well. Mostly healthcare products, sports, healthy food or education. Actually, this works on anything, were (a) grave consequences are feared or high rewards anticipated but (b) causality can’t be discerned by everyday logic.

    The only sustainable soultion to this dilemma is, to for countries to invest in education and for individuals to embrace science.

  29. I think these videos do more harm than good. They preach to the converted, but they seem to play a bit fast and loose with the facts, which gives opponents all the ammunition they need to dismiss the important points that are being made.

    Acknowledging the complexity and nuance of a subject without overwhelming people or sounding noncommittal and Kerryesque is a fine line to walk, but overstating your case will diminish your credibility with the people you most want and need to influence.

    I watched the bottled water video and the story of stuff one, and while I am highly sympathetic to the main points made in each, I am also highly suspect of many of the specific claims made, and I found many of the explanations offered to be simplistic. For example: the idea that changing fashion is a modern phenomenon fueled exclusively by a corporate conspiracy to make us throw out our existing stuff and buy new stuff, ignoring the fact that fashion — non-functional changes to everyday items — has been important throughout recorded history; that people using their clothing and possessions to differentiate and distinguish themselves from others is a positively ancient phenomenon, the acceleration of which can probably be explained satisfactorily by a combination of greater disposable income and more rapid communications, allowing for more rapid and more frequent change. Advertisers and corporations no doubt recognized and capitalized on this basic human behavioral trait, but they didn’t manufacture it.

    1. @Anon #59: Agreed. Explaining a deep and complex subject simply and accurately is a great goal. And the essential point of this video is spot-on. But sloppiness, hyperbole, overgeneralization, etc., each provide just enough damage to credibility that the *opposing* point becomes the point that is emphasized in the skeptical viewer’s mind.

      I’m a “sustainability professional.” I do greenhouse gas emissions analyses for a living. I have an advanced degree and a few certifications. And I’m arguing from authority here, a logical fallacy in itself, but I have to say this: activists, please, come to us *first*. Come to those of us who have to explain this stuff to group after group of concerned and occasionally combative citizens as cities across the country attempt to revise their master plans.

      Check your work with skeptical audiences and *take them seriously*. Just because they don’t have your background – whatever that is – doesn’t mean their concerns are either invalid or contrarian. Find out *why* they’re inclined to disagree with the information you present. Use the incisiveness of their feedback to refine your work. If you need to be more precise, or more accurate, do it. Add 75 seconds to your video. Explain the mechanics and the models. If you actually understand them yourselves, it’s not that hard. You’d be surprised, maybe… you shouldn’t be, but you might be surprised at just how much your average trucker could teach you about the environmental footprint of transporting bottled water.

  30. Before the former NYS Governor Eliot Spitzer got himself into trouble, he had a great idea–reforming the bottle bill in NYS.
    Not only would the
    *state get the unclaimed deposit money (instead of the bottlers getting these million$)
    *deposit values which have otherwise been unchanged in many years, go from 5¢ to 10¢ per bottle–encouraging recycling
    *but also, water bottles and sugary beverages like gatorade,etc that currently have NO refund value in NYS would be included
    Great plan. Let’s do it!

  31. Here in Germany people use often glass bottles and plastic bottles with deposit. After the film “plastic planet” we know, that Bisphenol A can leave the plastic bottles after the cleaning and can evoque cancer. And to clean all the glass bottles, to carry them around the producers and consumers a lot of petrol is used…Happy to have good water from the tap, coming directly from the mountains around Munich. Hope that the water tubes in old houses are in good condition..

    Your clip is great! Greatings from Germany!

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