by Daniel Jaffee, author of Unbottled: The Fight against Plastic Water and for Water Justice

In writing Unbottled: The Fight Against Plastic Water and for Water Justice, my aim was to capture the diverse range of social movements that are challenging the commodity of bottled water. I also wanted to understand the implications of the meteoric growth of this product for sustainability and social justice, both in the global North and the South. What surprised me the most in my research was discovering how strongly bottled water consumption and the growing distrust of public tap water in the U.S. are linked to class, racial, and ethnic inequality, and to the effects of five decades of federal disinvestment in public water infrastructure. I became convinced that dependence on bottled water—so evident in socially-produced disasters of unsafe tap water like those in Flint, Michigan, Jackson, Mississippi, and elsewhere—is a key marker of water injustice, a signal that the human right to safe water is being abridged or denied.— Daniel Jaffee

The Real Cost of Bottled Water
Edited excerpt from Unbottled

The price of bottled water has frequently been the focus of both ridicule and concern. While often priced competitively with soda and other beverages, this commodity is vastly more expensive than the tap water it often replaces for consumers. Depending on the brand and package, the cost of the average yearly bottled water consumption (47 gallons per person) for a family of four in single-serving bottles ranges from roughly $250 to nearly $2,700 per year, while the equivalent volume of tap water costs less than one dollar for four people—a mere 23.5 cents per person.

Of course, the issue is not just bottled water’s astronomically higher cost, but the way these expenditures impact household incomes. It has long been argued that bottled water is a discretionary good, consumed most by higher-income households. However, recent studies paint a very different picture. A 2019 survey by Consumer Reports reached precisely the opposite conclusion: poorest families spend the most. Households with annual incomes under $25,000 spent an average of $15 per month on bottled water, those earning between $25,000 and $49,000 spent $12 per month, and the wealthiest (over $50,000 annual income) spent only $10 per month. Black households spent an average of $19 per month on packaged water and Latino/a households spent $18, while white households spent only $9 per month.

Other research has found similar patterns. Health scholar Asher Rosinger and colleagues reported that higher-income adults drank less bottled water and more tap water, and that bottled water consumption was much higher among Black and Latino/a households, immigrants to the U.S., and people with less than a high school degree. In fact, the majority of plain water consumed by Black and Latino/a adults in the U.S. was bottled water, compared to less than one-third for white adults. Nutrition researcher Florent Vieux and coauthors found that counter to expectations, “tap water consumption was higher at higher incomes, whereas the consumption of bottled water was higher at lower incomes.” In other words, bottled water use and its impact on household income map onto—and exacerbate—existing social inequalities along lines of race, ethnicity, and class.

These patterns intersect with people’s perceptions of tap water safety. A 2017 U.S. Gallup poll reported that 80 percent of non-white respondents were very worried about drinking water pollution, compared to 56 percent of whites. Seventy-five percent of those earning less than $30,000 per year worried a great deal, versus only 56 percent of those earning over $75,000.

Taken all together, these conclusions show that demand for bottled water is actually higher among those who are on the losing end of the deterioration of U.S. public water infrastructure, and whose tap water is perceived and/or documented to be unsafe to drink: low-income, Black, and Latino/a households. This indicates that the market for bottled water is now a dual one, in which, as Rosinger and coauthors write, “higher income adults drink bottled water for convenience, whereas lower-income adults may drink bottled water because of tap water access issues.”

In fact, market researchers are explicit in recommending that bottled water firms should target their advertising campaigns at African Americans and Latinos/as. According to one market report, “Black and Hispanic consumers are important consumer groups for packaged water brands. Both groups believe bottled water tastes better than tap water. Black consumers are significantly less likely than total consumers to use refillable water bottles and drink tap water… marketing messages around taste/flavor may resonate strongly with Black consumers. Water brands can steal Black and Hispanic consumers from the sports drink market.” The leading bottled water firms have faced substantial criticism for focusing their marketing on these communities, as well as immigrants from nations where tap water may not be safe or reliable.

Thus, the social groups who on average can least afford to pay for a constant supply of bottled water are precisely those who tend to trust their tap water the least, who are targeted by the industry’s advertising, and who spend the highest percentage of household income to buy packaged water.

Of course, families who shun their tap water because of fears about its quality or safety do not stop paying utility bills for tap water, even if they choose not to use it (or cannot use it) for drinking. They are paying double for their drinking water. In places where the tap water is unsafe to drink as a result of industrial contamination or water system failure, such as regions with fracking-related groundwater pollution or widespread septic system leaks, agricultural areas with nitrate contamination, or cities with lead leaching from aging pipes, this becomes an even more serious problem of linked economic and environmental injustice. The cost of replacing tap water with bottled water for a household’s full drinking and cooking needs—roughly four gallons per person per day for an average-sized family—was calculated at approximately $1,000 to $5,000 per year in 2015. Adding these costs to water bills that now average more than 12 percent of income for poor families in the U.S. represents a significant economic burden.

Such injustice is rendered even more egregious if, like roughly fifteen million Americans each year, people are obliged to turn to bottled water because their home tap water service has been shut off for nonpayment, or if like another two million people in the U.S., they lack access to running water or indoor plumbing altogether. In Detroit, writes Ryan Felton, poor and predominantly Black families whose water supply was disconnected for past-due water bills of as little as $150 are meeting their drinking and cooking needs with bottled Dasani water that comes from the Detroit municipal water supply maintained by their tax dollars, thus paying hundreds of times more for the very same public water they were cut off from. Adding insult to injury, these families must take on the extra labor required to constantly haul cases of bottled water to their homes.

In these ways, bottled and packaged water intersects with, highlights, and exacerbates economic and racial injustice.