Health Care

Water wars: Bottled or tap? Debate still rages

ORLANDO, Fla. -- The next time you go to the vending machine for a bottle of water (costing 6 cents an ounce) or, instead, sip from the drinking fountain (free), you will be taking part in another debate that touches on the fate of humankind.

Because the next time you grab a bottle from a case in the fridge (costing a penny an ounce) or fill a glass from the tap (a penny for 5 gallons) you will be choosing between dollars and cents, essential hydration and environmental waste, and personal health and public health.

Let your wallet be your first guide, opponents of bottled water say.

"The bottled-water industry has really built a market on casting doubt on the quality of tap water," said Kristin Urquiza, director of Think Outside the Bottle, a campaign devised by Corporate Accountability International, a Boston-based group. "But more and more people are saying, 'Wait a minute, bottled water is costing thousands of times more than tap water.'<2009>"

Convenience has its virtuesustry supporters say.

"Sometimes it's a moment-by-moment choice, where you are in front of the 7-Eleven cooler and you grab a bottle of water because that's all you really want instead of a carbonated beverage," said Tom Luria, spokesman for the International Bottled Water Association. "That should be applauded by everyone, just because of obesity and heart disease and other problems that come with excessive calories."

As sales of bottled water took off during the past decade, so did a backlash from environmental and consumer groups that encourage use of reusable bottles.

When sales dropped in 2008 and 2009, the industry blamed the recession, while opponents claimed progress in turning the public against bottled water.

Today, sales are back on track, according to Luria. But not entirely, said Urquiza, pointing to a continued lag last year in revenue for Nestle Waters North America, the largest U.S. bottler of water and the owner of several brands, including Zephyrhills.

Figures published by Beverage Marketing, a private research company, show that the industry rebounded last year to sell 8.8 billion gallons, or nearly as much as it sold in 2007, the peak year for sales.

That's not the sole result of any economic recovery; the personal-sized, disposable bottle of water also got significantly cheaper.

"In the single-serve market -- the 1.5-liter-size containers and smaller -- that segment had very aggressive pricing in 2010, and that's one of the factors that helped drive the growth," said Gary Hemphill, Beverage Marketing's managing director.

According to his research on gallons sold, sports-and-energy drinks and ready-to-drink tea and coffee had the greatest gains last year, followed by bottled water, which had an overall growth of 3.5 percent. Soda, still the leading beverage product, continued a multiyear decline.

Industry supporters note that bottlers have switched to containers made with a third less plastic, reducing them from 18.9 grams -- or the weight of about four nickels -- to 12.7 grams.

Industry detractors say the rate of recycling bottles, according to government figures, is 25 percent. Even Zephyrhills packaging notes "fewer than 25 percent of all plastic bottles actually are recycled. We need your help."