How Bottled Water Works

The bottled water industry is an $8 billion plus industry. 
The bottled water industry is an $8 billion plus industry. 

For a natural resource that most of us have access to for minimal cost, water is doing pretty well as a revenue generator. The bottled version of the stuff is currently an $8 billion industry in the United States alone, with Americans drinking about 7 billion gallons of it in 2005. That's compared to hundreds of billions of gallons of tap water, but for a product that can cost up to 10,000 times more than its municipal counterpart, it's still an impressive marketshare.

So what's the appeal? The three most common reasons given by bottled-water drinkers are healthiness, purity and taste. As we'll get into later on, the first two reasons are somewhat misguided, and the third is open for debate. For a seemingly basic food product, bottled water has generated its share of controversy. Some of it focuses on the federal and state regulations governing the industry, some of it goes deeper into the ecological implications of bottling and transporting billions on billions of gallons of something that flows freely from the tap, and some of it calls into question the labeling practices of bottled-water companies.

­ The pretty pictures and superlative language on the labels of bottled waters can sometimes be misl­eading. One famous example is the now defunct Alaska Water, which stated on the label, "Alaska Premium Glacier Drinking Water: Pure Glacier Water From the Last Unpolluted Frontier," and came from one of the municipal water supplies in Juneau. The currently available Glacier Clear Water comes from a source in Greeneville, Tennessee. But if you look past the names and descriptions and go straight to the water type, the label will more or less tell you what's in the bottle. "Spring water" and "artesian water" are examples of bottled-water types.

Aquafina and Dasani, the two top-selling brands in the United States, are "purified drinking water." Other popular brands, including Poland Spring and Arrowhead, are "spring water." Evian is "mineral water," and Perrier is "sparkling mineral water." Eldorado Springs is "artesian spring water." These labels primarily indicate two things about the water in the bottle: its source and any treatment it has undergone. In the next section, we'll examine the sources and treatments associated with each type of bottled water and take a look at the process Aquafina uses to produce its "purified drinking water," which starts out as plain old tap water purchased from public water supplies.