This answer discusses the two main environmental impacts of bottled water, transportation and recyclable materials, with a focus on the US.
What are the environmental impacts of bottled water?
The drinking of bottled water has increased exponentially since the first bottle of sparkling water was sold in the US in 1977. Today, on average, 1200 bottles of water are opened in the US every second, which contributes to a $13 billion industry. The environmental impact of this industry is influenced by two key factors: the energy used in transporting the product, and the materials used in the packaging.
Tap water is provided through pipe systems, which are designed as the most efficient way to transport water, with minimal costs and low energy usage. 45% of bottled water is taken straight from these municipal water supplies. It is then purified and has mixtures of minerals added, depending on the product being produced. As such, this water often has less far to travel in its bottled state. However, the majority of bottled water (55%) is sourced from natural springs, which are a key element of its advertising, and as such undergoes minimal filtration and is bottled close to the source. This water is then shipped to its destination by far less efficient modes of transport, such as lorries and barges, which have high carbon footprints. In fact, it often takes twice as much energy to transport the product as it does to package it.
By far the biggest environmental impact is caused by the bottles themselves. Almost all bottles (>95%) are made from Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET), a recyclable plastic. However, only 31% of these ever make it to a recycling bin, the remaining 69% ending up in landfill, or incinerators. But even the recycled plastics are not a completely green alternative. More energy is required to ship these plastics to their destinations, usually other countries where they can be used in manufacturing, and still more is used in the recycling process itself.
With so many people having access to safe drinking water from their own home, priced at less than half a cent per gallon, it seems illogical that people continue to drink bottled water, which is over 200x more expensive at $1.21 per gallon, at such an alarming rate.