Charles Fishman, writing in The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water (2011):
Americans spent $21 billion on bottled water in 2009. It doesn’t seem like an astonishing sum of money—about $65 per person, $1.25 a week. But in the context of water, $21 billion is huge.
Consider, for instance, what Americans spend for all the water delivered to their homes—350 gallons per family per day, 365 days a year. The water bill comes to about $412 a year. Which means we spend $46 billion a year on all the household water we use all year long—to run the morning shower, to boil the pasta, to water the lawn. As a nation, we spend $46 billion for a year’s water, always on, whenever we need it. And we spend another $21 billion—almost half as much—for bottled water, for an amount of water that wouldn’t get us through eight hours of water use at home on any given day.
But there’s an even more arresting comparison. We spend about $29 billion a year maintaining our entire water system in the United States—the drinking water treatment plants, the pump stations, the pipes in the ground, the wastewater treatment plants.
So as a nation, we spend very nearly as much on water delivered in small crushable plastic bottles as we do on sustaining the entire water system of the country.
When we buy a bottle of water, of course, what we’re often buying is the bottle itself, as much as the water. We’re buying the convenience—a bottle at the 7-Eleven isn’t the same product as tap water, any more than a cup of coffee at Starbucks is the same as a cup of coffee from the coffeemaker on your kitchen counter. But we’re also buying the artful story the water companies tell us about the water: where it comes from, how healthy it is, what it says about us.
Bottled water, in that sense, is often simply an indulgence. The problem is that it is not a benign indulgence. We’re moving 1 billion bottles of water around a week in ships, trains, and trucks in the United States alone. That’s a weekly convoy equivalent to 37,800 18-wheelers delivering water. (Water weighs 8.33 pounds a gallon. It’s so heavy you can’t fill an 18-wheeler with bottled water—you have to leave empty space.)