Message in a Bottle

Part of the Water: H2O = Life exhibition.

Tap versus bottled: how to decide? That's a tricky question.
The convenience of bottled water comes at a cost.
© AMNH / Denis Finnin

Some people don't have a choice; their tap water is unsafe or nonexistent, so for them, bottled water is a lifesaver. But in much of the developed world, what comes from your faucet is generally just as safe, or safer, than bottled. And in many places tap water tastes as good, too: Repeated comparison tests have shown most tasters can't tell the difference.

Bottled water is definitely convenient, but that convenience comes at a cost. Pumping water uses energy; making plastic bottles uses energy; shipping water from distant places uses energy as well. Bottled water has its uses-where there's no safe municipal water, for instance, or as a healthier alternative to soft drinks--but choosing it means making a lot of other serious choices, too.

What's Left Behind

The amount of bottled water consumed by the average North American in 2005 was about 80 liters (21 gallons). Globally, consumption nearly doubled between 1997 and 2005, and the U.S. is the largest total consumer of bottled water. Manufacturing all those bottles uses a lot of water--twice as much as the bottles contain. Worldwide, over 2.7 million tons of plastic are used for water bottles, but in the U.S. only about 20 percent of the bottles are recycled. The total estimated energy needed to make, transport, and dispose of one bottle of water is equivalent to filling the plastic bottle one-quarter full of oil.

Big Bucks

Today, consumers worldwide spend as much as 100 billion U.S. dollars on bottled water. Meanwhile, many public systems that deliver inexpensive, safe tap water and remove wastewater are aging and in need of costly maintenance. Deferred maintenance can result in such events as water main breaks.

Pure Imagination

People often choose bottled water assuming it's safer than tap water, and perhaps imagining it comes from a pristine mountain spring. Most bottled water is safe-but so is the municipal water that is the source of an estimated 40 percent of U.S. bottled water.

Smarter Solutions

If you want to carry water with you, why not get a reusable bottle and refill it at the tap?

By the Numbers

  • Average price of tap water in the U.S. = less than $.01 a gallon
  • Average price of bottled water in the U.S. = about $10 a gallon

Your Water on Tap

Around the world, cities get their water from various sources--lakes, rivers, reservoirs, and groundwater--and they treat it in different ways, both before and after you use it. It may surprise you, but your water had a history before it came from your tap--and that history continues after it goes down the drain. In fact, it goes on forever!


When we look into a clear lake, the water reflects our faces. What we can't see is that it reflects our lifestyles, too. The fertilizers and pesticides used to grow our food can end up in streams and groundwater. Manufacturing our clothes, our cars, and our computers requires water as well, and factories may pollute that water before returning it to the environment.

Even what goes down the drains in many of our homes may have hidden consequences. From antibacterial soap to weed killers to the tiny traces of prescription drugs in human waste, we leave our mark on water and the life it supports.