While economic hardship can cause considerable discomfort, it also can teach us some valuable lessons about what is necessary in our lives and what isn't. The current economic downturn seems to be teaching more and more Americans that they can get along without bottled water.
If that lesson takes hold, it would be good news not only for our pocketbooks but also for public health and the environment. The sour economy might be accomplishing what environmentalists have been trying to do for years.
U.S. consumers spent nearly $17 million on bottled water in 2007, according to the trade publication Beverage Digest. That was up 12 percent from the year before.
While that is a lot of bottled water, it is the slowest growth rate for the industry since the early 1990s. Bottlers, such as Coca-Cola, which bottles the popular Dasani brand, say the outlook is not good for this quarter.
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While bottlers might be wringing their hands, the trend is only logical. Bottled water can cost as much as a gallon of gas. By contrast, $3 will buy you about 2,000 gallons of municipal tap water.
Consumers have been willing to shell out a dollar-plus for a 20-ounce bottle of water because it is convenient and portable. They also might have been under the impression that bottled water is purer and safer than tap water.
But bottled water is neither a bargain nor better for you than tap water. In fact, bottled water often is nothing more than tap water. If you see the initials "P.W.S." on the label of a water bottle, it stands for "public water source."
But not all of it is municipal water, and in many cases, bottled water has been found to have more contaminants than tap water. Tap water is subject to much higher regulatory standards than bottled water.
Bottled water also is bad for the environment in many ways. Americans use about 40 billion plastic water bottles a year, and only about a quarter of them are recycled. The rest end up in landfills.
Production of plastic bottles also uses more than 1.5 million barrels of petroleum a year. Millions more gallons of gasoline are used to ship bottled water from factories to stores around the nation.
But you say you can't get along without water on the go? Try an alternative that many are finding increasingly attractive: Buy stainless steel bottles and fill them from the tap. Stainless steel, by the way, is better than some plastic containers that can leach chemicals into the water. If you are worried about the quality of your tap water, whole-house or faucet filters are easy to install.
We're ready for the economy to improve. But we hope people have learned that bottled water is a luxury they can do without even in good times.
Sour economy might be steering consumers clear of bottled water.
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