As you can imagine, trying to answer this question requires the consideration of a large number of different factors. However, I think it’s a fair summary to say that the bottled water industry is another example of capitalism, particularly effective marketing, at work.
There have been a number of books released over the past few years on this topic. Here are two of those books, with links to the author’s blogs:
Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water (Peter Gleick, 2010).
Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It (Elizabeth Royt, 2008).
To answer my original question: I think that in most developed countries, bottled water is harmful.
For all the frugal people out there, the fact is that bottled water is a colossal waste of money. You’re paying at least a buck for something you could get at home for a few cents, even after you factor in the cost of a water filter. A few posts ago a commenter asked about water filters and my thought is that most of them do a pretty good job of eliminating disinfectant by-products and more importantly improving taste. I don’t know about you, but that’s my main concern: I want my water to taste as boring as possible.
The second, and more important reason I think they are harmful, is that bottled water involves the use of plastic. Even if we did a better job of recycling, it would still be a non-renewable resource-intensive activity. As it is, these bottles (and many other items in our one-time-use-throw-away society) end up in landfills and oceans where they take hundreds of years to decompose. Hundreds of years may not seem to be that long, but think about the fact that just over 500 years ago there were no Europeans in the western hemisphere, and the trans-Atlantic slave-trade had not started. Four hundred years ago the United Kingdom was the most powerful and expansive nation on earth, and the US did not exist. One hundred and fifty years ago, we started putting electricity to use, and were just starting to postulate that bacteria caused disease.
Ok, out of that rabbit-hole and back to the topic at hand. I do think that in developing countries, where the water supply is unpredictable and water quality is not rigorously maintained, bottled water can serve a useful purpose when boiling and other purification methods are not practical.
Another circumstance when bottled water is a good thing is during disaster relief efforts. Water is critical to life and being able to supply it quickly to people who are coping with wide-scale tragedy is essential.
So I’ve presented my case, and I’d love to hear what you think: is bottled water a good idea, no big deal or potentially harmful?