US bottled water market sees growth, as sustainability questions remain

By Ryan Daily

- Last updated on GMT

Image Credit: Getty Images - 97
Image Credit: Getty Images - 97

Related tags Bottled water Water International bottled water association

Consumers increasingly are picking up bottled water for a healthier alternative to juice and soad, which is driving sales growth in the overall market despite concerns about the environmental impact of plastic and bottling resources.

The International Bottled Water Association (IBWA) thinks that water is the best and healthiest choice for hydration, whether it’s bottled water, filtered water, or tap water. People should always be encouraged to drink all types of water,​” Jill Culora, VP of communications at IBWA, told FoodNavigator-USA.  

The bottled water market has reached new volume heights due to the demand for better-for-you products and on-the-go hydration. The bottled water market approach $46bn in 2022, having sold 15.9bn gallons, up from $40.8bn in 2021, according to Beverage Marketing Corporation (BMC) data​. Additionally, the demand for bottled water has increased 30% since 2012, as consumers look for no-sugar beverage options. 

Consumers’ thirst for beverages that offer benefits beyond refreshment alone also contributed to the fundamental hydrating beverage’s rise in the beverage standings. Bottled water’s zero-calorie status and its lack of artificial ingredients appeal to many consumers,​” said John G. Rodwan, Jr., BMC’s editorial director, shared in a press release. “Even where tap water may be safe and readily available, people may prefer bottled water, which they often believe tastes better.​”

Is bottled water the solution to water insecurity?

Despite this growth in bottled water sales, many people are concerned with the environmental impact of bottling water, pointing to the widespread availability to tap water in the US. However, the bottled water industry doesn’t see tap water as competition, instead seeing the two as providing consumers with safe, drinking water options, Culora noted. 

The bottled water industry does not consider tap water to be our competitor in the marketplace. Instead, bottled water competes with other packaged drinks – such as carbonated soft drinks, fruit juices, and energy drinks,​” Culora said. “Consumers have been increasingly choosing bottled water instead of less-healthy packaged drinks, especially in the past decade.​”

Many people in the US and around the world are facing water insecurity, which can have a knock-on effect on food insecurity. Roughly two billion people around the globe don’t have access to clean and safe drinking water, according to this year’s United Nations World Water Development Report.​ And in the US, more than 44m people are served by inadequate water systems and 2.2m of them have no running water or basic indoor plumbing, according to nonprofit DigDeep​. 

Bottled water is one way safe drinking water is provided to humans. Point-of-use filtration devices, point-of-entry filtration systems, and tap water are also capable of delivering safe drinking water. Each has a place and an important role to play in human health and well-being.​”

But what about plastic pollution?

While access to water is one aspect of sustainability, the other is the plastic and resources used to bottle the water. However, the IBWA points to the higher recyclability and lower resources consumed in making it as being more sustainable than soda and other beverage products.

When it comes to the plastic to create the bottle, water bottles are mostly made with 100% recyclable PET #1 plastic and HDPE #2 plastic and consume less raw plastic than other beverage categories, the IBWA claimed. Soft drinks and sugary beverages can use 252% more PET plastic than bottled water containers, which come in 22.2 grams vs. 8.8 grams for a 16.9-ounce container since those beverages need thicker plastic containers due to the carbonation and bottling process, Culora said.

While the total percentage of all plastic recycled was 8.7% per EPA’s 2018 data​, PET containers and bottles have seen higher rates of recycling than other types of plastic. PET recycling rates in the US were at 28.6% in 2021, up from 27.1 in 2020, as pandemic-related obstacles around plastic recycling have lessened, according to The National Association for PET Container Resources’ report published in December 2022​. 

But despite the higher recyclability of PET plastic, producing and distributing bottled water also has an environmental impact, which could be avoided with the use of more tap water. In a 2021 study​, the Barcelona Institute for Global Health found that if its city’s residents were to switch from tap water to bottle water, it would result in “a 3,500 times higher cost of resource extraction” and cost $83.9m more a year.  

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