Water is eternal. As long as there has been the earth, there has been water. Similarly, the debate over bottled water vs tap water seems to have lasted an eternity. We have all got stuck into this debate at some point with friends and family members. One way or another, it is a conversation that rarely finds a satisfying resolution.
Environmental change and increased water scarcity are focusing minds more and more on this question: Should we drink bottled water or tap water? While many people claim that bottled water is better for you, other advocates argue that bottled water is expensive, bad for the environment, and unnecessary. Particularly when compared to investing in a filter for your tap water.
So, which is best? Here, we break down this conversation so you can make an informed decision.
To understand what kind of water you should be drinking, you first need to understand what is involved in each kind of water. The differences often aren't so stark. A large portion of bottled water has been repurposed tap water. The Natural Resources Defense Council found that 25% of bottled water comes from municipal water reserves, while a 2018 report found that 64% of bottled water is sourced from tap water.
Across most of the U.S., tap water is very safe to drink. (Notable exceptions include Flint, Michigan, and Newark, where water has been contaminated with lead.)
In urban and suburban areas, you can rely on city water because it is regularly treated and tested so that it meets a certain standard of safety. By international standards, the water your local municipalities provide is safe, healthy, and of good quality. Extremely low levels of fluoride may be added to boost dental health and reduce the occurrence of cavities.
In rural areas, however, it is a little more complicated. Water that comes from wells hasn't undergone the same treatment process and so isn't safe for people with compromised immune systems. A report by the Natural Resources Defense Council found that people living in small, rural areas are at greatest risk in the United States from drinking contaminated tap water.
Many people object to tap water on the grounds of safety and taste. They aren't sure they trust what's in tap water and don't think it tastes as good as bottled water.
In these cases, people can and often opt to use water filters, which — you guessed it — filter out bacteria, pesticides, and any other foreign elements that might be found in water.
Filters come in many forms. There are filters you can attach to your taps and faucets so that the water is filtered as soon as you open the tap. Other common filters are pitchers that use activated carbon to filter your water. You just fill up the pitcher as and when you want water, and the water passes through a filter into the pitcher.
There are more complex, heavy-duty systems available, such as point-of-entry aeration. Do your research before investing in expensive systems, and seriously consider what your needs are.
Either way, filtered water can offer a safe, healthy, and economic middle ground between tap water and bottled water.
Bottled water is an attractive option for many people who feel it tastes better and is safer. Depending on the supplier, bottled water may come from a spring, be municipal water that is filtered heavily, or is just tap water bottled up and packaged as something else.
Most bottled water is put through a filtration system but is often just filtered tap water from somewhere else. In some cases, bottled water isn't even filtered. If you check the side of the bottle you are buying and it doesn't tell you how or where it is filtered, then it likely hasn't been filtered.
Pros and Cons
Understanding the different ways in which tap water and bottled water come to be should indicate some upsides and downsides of each. Considering flavor, cost and availability, safety, and environmental impact might give you pause to think about your water options. (Spoiler, you might want to consider a filter for your water.)
Benefits And Risks of Tap Water
There is little difference in health benefits between tap and bottled water. It does the same job hydrating you whether the water comes out of a tap or a bottle. (Or, out of a bottle via a tap.) One major difference though is the presence of fluoride in tap water.
Fluoride is the subject of great debate (and conspiracies) about its safety. It is often put in municipal water supplies in extremely low doses to promote dental health, as it can prevent tooth decay and cavities. While other health concerns about fluoride in the water are unsubstantiated — owing to its minimal presence in the water supply — there are now debates about how much effect it has on dental health. Either way, its presence in the water supply causes no harm.
While U.S. tap water is safe and of good quality by international standards, there are still risks of contamination. This can occur through natural disasters, poor government policy, and old or faulty water systems. Tap-water safety can also vary from location to location, as the examples of Flint and Newark highlight.
Many argue that bottled water tastes better, but the research doesn't bear that out. Blind taste tests have found that people can't taste the difference between bottled water and tap water. A 2010 study found that 64% of people couldn't taste the difference between 6 types of bottled water and 6 types of chlorine-free tap water.
Where there is an obvious difference it is the result of minerals and chlorine in the water, which can be remedied by using a filter. It doesn't mean the water is poor quality.
Cities treat tap water with chemicals and then pump it into holding tanks. Even though this process involves a lot of energy and chemicals, it has less impact on the environment than bottled water, which also uses large quantities of plastics.
Tap water is inexpensive and the upkeep is covered by your taxes. Each day, you can fill up a reusable bottle for free at home or in public areas. The only extra cost you incur is that of your reusable water bottle.
Benefits And Risks of Bottled Water
Like tap water, bottled water is generally safe. As well as sourcing from municipal supplies, it can also be sourced from wells and springs. The FDA, which oversees bottled water, requires that bottled water processes meet certain sanitary conditions.
However, bottles are sometimes recalled because of contamination. One ongoing issue is the low presence of microplastics found in bottled water.
As described earlier, people generally struggle to taste the difference between them, despite stated preferences for bottled water. When people do notice a taste difference, mineral water is preferred over other sources, depending on the type and presence of minerals.
Bottled water has a much greater environmental impact than tap water.
First, it involves a similar filtration process to tap water. But in addition, it is also packaged into plastic bottles and shipped across countries, continents, and the world, while in some cases depleting natural water supplies.
It costs you several dollars each time you buy a bottle of water, in addition to the social costs associated with the pollution that arises from bottled water. For instance, clearing beaches of washed-up water bottles, ridding the oceans of plastic pollution, and recycling efforts.
So, What Should I Go For?
The reasons for drinking bottled water make sense, but they don't tally with the weight of evidence. It often tastes no different to tap water and is just as safe, yet it is more costly to you and the planet.
Considering this, investing in a filtering system, however simple it may be, is the best option moving forwards.
Perceived differences in taste are important. And where there are differences, filters help to make tap water taste better by filtering out contaminants and chemicals that may be affecting the taste. The same goes for everyday concerns about the safety of drinking water.
If you have long harbored concerns about drinking tap water, take the plunge with a filter. You should achieve get everything you are looking for with bottled water, without having to incur the financial and environmental costs.
There are loads of great filtering options out there. Depending on your budget and sensitivity, you are sure to find something out there that works for you.