Calculating the environmental impact of consumer products has become increasingly popular as more individuals try to learn about the underlying costs of items they use daily, including bottled water. With a record 10 billion gallons of bottled water consumed in the United States alone in 2013 and sales continuing to increase, people want to know more about the effect of drinking bottled water instead of tap water.
The factors associated with everything from making packaging, filling bottles, then transporting the product accumulate rapidly. The Atlantic’s City Lab estimates “Liter for liter, producing bottled water is about 2,000 times more energy-intensive than producing tap water.”
Estimating the carbon footprint of bottled water seems to be like aiming at a moving target. One recent estimate is the footprint is roughly 82.8 grams of carbon dioxide equivalent per half-liter bottle, which The Guardian said is “not insignificant when everyone’s drinking it.”
Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. in 2007 totaled 7,947 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, according to an International Bottled Water Association 2011 study summary.
Based on data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the association extrapolated that the U.S. small-pack and delivery bottled water industries combined emit 6.8 million tons a year of carbon dioxide equivalent, or roughly 0.08 percent of the total.
The association determined that the life cycle greenhouse gas emissions per half-gallon of small-pack bottled water is 426.4 grams of carbon dioxide equivalent. This compares to orange juice, which has a 1,700 grams of carbon dioxide equivalent per half-gallon. Its estimate for a half-liter bottle of water is 111 grams of carbon dioxide equivalent, which compares to 240 grams for the same sized bottle of soda.
Water Source Makes a Difference
The water source chosen by the consumer can also increase the carbon footprint of that bottled water. The mode of transportation and how far the water travels can add many grams of carbon dioxide to the water’s carbon footprint.
This interest in assessing the effects of consuming bottled water is not restricted to North America, as seen in two related studies of drinking water carbon footprints in Italy (doi:10.1016/j.jenvman.2011.05.033 and doi: 10.1016/j.envsci.2011.01.004). One study found:
[D]rinking 1.5 L of tap water instead of PET-bottled water saves 0.34 kg CO2eq […] thus, a PET-bottled water consumer (2 L per day) who changes to tap water may prevent 163.50 kg CO2eq of greenhouse gas emissions per year.
The second study found it takes more than 3 liters of water to produce a 1.5-liter bottle of drinking water. An additional 1.93 liters of virtual water was needed to bottle that water.
Role of Taxing
The Atlantic City Lab article examined the taxation of bottled water as one approach to addressing the carbon footprint and other costs associated with bottled water, giving Washington state as an example. Washington enacted a bottled water tax in 2010. The result was a 6.4 percent reduction in bottled-water consumption, according to a study by the University of California Berkeley. The city of Chicago instituted a tax of 5 cents per bottle of water, raising roughly $38 million in the first five years.
In the article, Laura Bliss stated:
Imagine what Detroit, with its water infrastructure crisis, could do with that tax revenue: It could cover a year’s worth of water-line replacements, for example. Imagine what the country could do with that revenue.
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