Americans Guzzling More Bottled Water Than Ever

Despite organized anti-bottled-water campaigns across the country and a noisy debate about bottled water’s impact, Americans are buying more than ever.

In 2011, total bottled water sales in the U.S. hit 9.1 billion gallons—29.2 gallons of bottled water per person, according to sales figures from Beverage Marketing Corp. The 2011 numbers are the highest total volume of bottled water ever sold in the U.S., and also the highest per-person volume. Translated to the handy half-liter size Americans find so appealing, that comes to 222 bottles of water for each person in the country—four bottles of water for every man, woman and child, every week.

Charles Fishman’s book, Big Thirst, is now available in paperback with a whole new chapter.

Indeed, bottled water sales aren’t just growing—it’s fair to say they’re booming. Volume increased by 4.1% in 2011—five times as fast as the 0.9% growth in the sales of beverages overall, according to Beverage Marketing. Bottled water sales, in fact, are growing twice as fast as the economy itself.

"Americans are drinking more bottled water because they find it convenient, appealing and also healthy," says Gary Hemphill, who is managing director for information services at Beverage Marketing, and a longtime observer of bottled water and beverage sales in the U.S. and around the world.
The resurgence of bottled water—sales dropped in 2008 for the first time in 31 years, and again in 2009, tracking declines in overall drink sales because of the recession—may be surprising given the debate about its value as a product in the last five years.

The record sales year comes as more than a dozen colleges and universities have taken the extraordinary step of banning sale of bottled water on campus, often under pressure from student organizing campaigns that encourage students to drink tap water.

Just last week, Loyola University in Chicago announced it would stop selling bottled water in cafeterias and on-campus stores this fall, and remove bottled water from vending machines starting in 2013. Loyola joins at least 15 other schools in the U.S. and Canada in banning bottled water sales, including the University of Vermont, Washington University, DePauw University, and Harvard’s School of Public Health.

At least four major municipalities—New York, Seattle, San Francisco and Chicago’s Cook County—have banned use of government funds to purchase bottled water.

Despite the record amount of water sold—2011 beat out the previous, pre-recession year of 2007, when volume was 8.8 billion gallons—2011 was not a record year in dollar sales of bottled water. At retail, Americans spent $21.7 billion on bottled water in 2011, just under 2007's spending.

The big three bottled water companies—Coke, Pepsi and Nestle—have been discounting water heavily in the last few years, to sustain sales through the recession and the growing opposition.

"Pricing in this category has been aggressive," says Hemphill, "which has helped."

Although the U.S. has among the safest tap water in the world, the U.S. remains the largest market for bottled water. The next two, in order, are China and Mexico, both countries in which tap water is either unavailable, or typically not considered safe to drink.

The increase in Americans’ consumption of bottled water is extraordinary—the growth having more in common with digital-era products than typical consumer products.

As recently as 2001, per person consumption of bottled water was just 18.2 gallons per person. Despite the size and visibility of the business, the amount of water actually sold is relatively tiny, compared to tap water volumes. U.S. water utilities supply more than 1 billion gallons of tap water an hour, every hour of the day.

The total amount of water in the bottles Americans buy in a year would only supply U.S. tap water needs from midnight until 9 a.m. on January 1.

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  • adamkru

    Come on people?! WHY STILL?! Some people actually live in contaminated areas were they cannot drink the water.  I don't understand why you would choose to live in such a place, in America, but they do.  For everyone else - there are 2 more important sales points that weren't included in this article:

    1. According to government and industry estimates, about 25% of bottled
    water is tap water, and maybe up to 40% is derived from tap water.
    FDA’s rules completely exempt 60-70% of bottled water sold in the
    USA. Even when covered by FDA standards, those rules do not meet EPA
    standards for big city tap water.

    2. In a study by the Natural Resources Defense council, about 30% of more
    than 1000 bottles of 103 brands tested by independent labs were shown to
    contain significant contamination (eg. levels exceeding those allowed
    by state or industry standards). One in four samples showed
    unacceptable amounts of arsenic or certain cancer causing man-made
    “organic” compounds, while one in five waters tested contained
    unacceptable amount of bacteria. Overall, approximately 33% of the
    water tested violated an enforceable state standard or bacterial level,
    or both.

  • IBWA

    Adam, regarding your first comment about 60-70% of bottled water being exempt from FDA regulation, you are flat out wrong.  All bottled water is subject to FDA's very strict regulatory oversight.

    FDA's jurisdiction over bottled water products (and any other product regulated by FDA) extends not only to those products that move in interstate commerce but also to those products sold within a single state that are enclosed in packaging materials that have moved in interstate commerce.

    Known as the component theory of FDA jurisdiction, courts have long held that if any component of a food product moves in interstate commerce, FDA has jurisdiction over the finished product, regardless of whether the finished product itself moves in interstate commerce [e.g., United States v. An Article of Food, 752 F.2d 11 (1st Cir. 1985)].

    In the case of bottled water, if the plastic used in the bottles, the plastic used in the caps, the paper and ink used on the labels, any other outer packaging materials, and even the water itself comes from out of state, then FDA has jurisdiction over that product. And in today's commercial society, that will almost always be the case. Congress has recognized this fact by enacting a law that expressly presumes that all food and beverage products are sold in interstate commerce. (21 U.S.C. § 379 (a)).

    Second,the NRDC study to which you refer is from 1999, 13 years ago, and you misquote the percentage in which it claims contaminants were found - 22%, not "about 30%."  Regardless, that report has been thoroughly debunked as junk science. See: http://www.thefactsaboutwater....