With awareness of the environmental impact of plastic bottles increasing, more and more people are now questioning the advantages of tap water over bottled water.
Some people may wonder which option is safer, or which tastes better. However, there are also a range of other factors to consider when choosing between bottled water and tap water.
Keep reading to learn more about the pros and cons of both bottled water and tap water.
Pros and cons of tap water
Factors to consider when choosing between tap water and bottled water include the safety of the water, its flavor, the cost and availability, and its impact on the environment.
The sections below list some pros and cons of tap water.
Drinking water in the United States is some of the safest in the world, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
In fact, nonprofit organization Food & Water Watch advise that tap water in the U.S. is subject to testing more often than bottled water.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are responsible for identifying and setting limits for the amount of contaminants that can be present in tap water and ground water. These include chemicals and microorganisms.
The standards are set out in the Safe Drinking Water Act. If there is a safety concern with tap water, federal law dictates that water companies must inform the public.
Although the EPA are responsible for setting tap water standards, not all contaminants are subject to regulation, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG). The EWG also report that contaminant level limits have remained unchanged for over 20 years.
To check the quality of their tap water, people can contact their local water company for a copy of the Annual Water Quality Report (or Consumer Confidence Report), check it against the EWG's standards, or both.
To improve the safety of their current tap water, a person can consider filtering it with carbon filters or a more effective reverse-osmosis system.
Blind taste tests consistently find that most people cannot differentiate between tap water and bottled water.
For example, a 2010 study in the Journal of Sensory Studies found that the majority of the participants could not tell the difference between six different bottled mineral waters and six municipal tap waters when the tap water was chlorine-free.
Most people preferred types of water with medium mineralization, regardless of the source. Just 36% of the participants were able to distinguish between bottled water and tap water.
Even if some tap waters may not taste as pleasant as bottled waters, it does not mean that the tap water is of poor quality. It may simply be due to chlorination or a higher mineral content.
One option to improve the taste of tap water is to use a filter. Another option is to add ice and a slice of lemon to each glass.
Cost and convenience
Drinking tap water is convenient and inexpensive. Simply turn on a faucet to get safe and cool drinking water.
Tap water is also readily available at restaurants and from public drinking fountains for free.
To prevent contamination, water companies treat public drinking water with chemicals using a range of processes. They then pump the water into holding tanks.
Also, once a person drinks a glass of water, they are likely to wash the glass by hand or in a dishwasher.
These steps will all involve the use of chemicals and energy, which has an impact on the environment.
Even so, the environmental impact of drinking tap water is far lower than that of bottled water, according to a report on the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority's website.
Perhaps most importantly, there is no disposable packaging involved that would eventually end up in either a landfill or recycling center.
Pros and cons of bottled water
The sections below list some of the pros and cons of bottled water.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) set the standards for bottled water. They require manufacturers to process and transport bottled water under sanitary conditions and to use processes that ensure the safety of the water.
This means that, in general, bottled water is safe to drink. In very rare cases, however, bottled water recalls occur due to contamination.
One cause for concern is the presence of plastic in bottled water. Research indicates that most bottled water contains microplastics, which may pose health risks.
One 2018 study, for example, tested 11 globally sourced brands of bottled water from nine different countries. The researchers found that 93% of the bottles showed some signs of microplastic contamination, and that they contained double the amount present in tap water.
These findings suggest that the contamination is at least partially due to the packaging process itself. Researchers are now starting to investigate the impact of these microplastics on human health.
Microplastics appear to fall within the same category of endocrine-disrupting chemicals as obesogens, affecting human, animal, and marine metabolism, reproduction, oxidative stress, and several other factors.
Also, people with weakened immune systems should take special precautions with their drinking water, choosing bottled water that manufacturers have treated to protect against the parasite Cryptosporidium.
Though FDA inspection of bottled water plants is rare, the FDA have recalled two bottled water brands due to contamination. These were Safeway Select in 2001 and Sam's Choice in 2005.
Consumer access to bottled water information and contaminant levels is limited compared with the tap water disclosure requirements required by the EPA.
Taste and source
Some people may prefer the taste of bottled water. However, as mentioned above, studies tend to show that the majority of people cannot tell the difference between tap and bottled water.
When purchasing bottled water, people may wish to consider the source. A lot of bottled water is simply filtered tap water.
Water that comes from an underground source or fresh spring will carry one of the following FDA-approved labels:
- artesian well water
- mineral water
- spring water
- well water
People may also wish to choose bottled water if they prefer flavored or sparkling water. Many water brands sell citrus- or berry-flavored water, for example. Sparkling water is a popular alternative to still.
Cost and convenience
According to some estimates, bottled water is almost 2,000 times the price of tap water, with a gallon — obtained from combining single-serve water bottles — costing almost three times the national average for a gallon of milk.
This is interesting, given that bottled water is often simply filtered tap water.
One reason that people choose bottled over tap water despite the cost difference may be that it can be more convenient to have a bottle to hand when out and about — especially if there is no access to a faucet.
Research indicates that the bottling, refrigeration, and transportation processes associated with water, as well as the disposal of plastic bottles after use, cause a wide range of adverse environmental effects far greater than those of tap water.
For example, in 2016, the bottling of water in the U.S. used 4 billion pounds of plastic. This process required an estimated energy input equal to approximately 64 million barrels of oil.
According to nonprofit organization Container Recycling Institute, every day in the U.S., people throw away over 60 million plastic water bottles. The majority of these bottles make their way into landfills and waterways, or they litter the streets.
These plastic bottles also release toxins as they degrade.
Some people try to reuse plastic water bottles in a bid to offset some of the environmental impacts. This may pose risks in the long-term, however, including the risk of bacterial growth and the risk of toxins leaching from the bottle.
Which is better?
Overall, it appears that tap water is a better option in most cases. It is convenient, free or inexpensive, and has much less of an environmental impact than bottled water.
Tap water is also just as safe as bottled water, and most people will not be able to tell the difference in taste.
Occasionally, bottled water may be more convenient or readily available than tap water. To remedy this, people can carry a reusable bottle of tap water with them and refill it from public drinking water facilities when necessary.
Those who prefer the taste of bottled water may wish to try a water filter. After all, a lot of bottled water is actually just filtered tap water. Or, people can try adding ice and slices of fruit to their tap water to improve its flavor.
Some people need to take extra precautions with their drinking water, especially if they have weaker immune systems, are pregnant, or are older.
These individuals should discuss their concerns with a doctor, who may advise them to drink certain bottled waters, or to boil their tap water before consumption.
There are pros and cons to both bottled water and tap water.
The type of water a person chooses will depend on many factors, including their preferences and concerns.
Overall, however, it seems that tap water consumption is much better for the environment, poses fewer health risks, and tastes very similar to bottled water — especially if filtered.