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The Battle Of Bottled Water 20110206

In the battle of bottled water, I often come across the following dichotomy:

  • either you can drink bottled water and be a horrible person
  • or you can drink out of your tap

I came across this exact thing when I was flipping through Jeff Yeager's "The Cheapskate Next Door".

Did you know that Evian is Naive spelled backwards?

Well, sure. I've seen that joke about a thousand times at this point. Can we please get some new material?

myth: you have 2 choices when it comes to filtered water

Yeager once again takes the approach that there are only 2 options: drink bottled water or drink tap. As someone who grew up drinking pop because I didn't like the taste of water, I think this oversimplification does a huge disservice to everyone, because there are lots of environmentally and wallet friendly options that people like Yeager totally ignore.

myth: tap tastes just as good as bottled

All of these either/or people seem to think that tap water tastes just as good (if not better) than bottled water. To those people I say, either your taste buds are not very sensitive or you're blessed to be living in one of those cities with excellent tap water and you don't have any old plumbing degrading the taste. Because, where I live tap water does not taste good.

why is bottled water the enemy

One thing I don't understand is, why isn't soda pop vilified the same way that bottled water is? It comes in the same evil plastic bottles. By the bottle, it's generally the same price, but it's packing you down with all sorts of artificial junk (e.g., high fructose corn syrup or aspartame) and potentially lots of empty calories. Water doesn't have any of that if you stay away from the flavored waters.

So we have a situation where people who are fundamentally making a better choice health wise by opting to drink water instead of sugared drinks, are being made to feel bad about themselves because their new drink of choice comes in a plastic bottle and it's more expensive than gasoline.

And I think the cost is one reason why people get so high and mighty about all of these idiots who dare buy bottled water. It's a human thing; we like to judge. But I'm sure that, if we were to look at the spending habits of those who are screaming "bottled water costs more than gasoline", we'd find they were spending good money on something that most of us would find equally ridiculous.

a lot of bottled water is just tap water

This is another thing that gets thrown about a lot. They always leave out the fact that it's a filtered form of tap water. Personally, I don't care what the source was so long as the end result tastes good. And for the record, I actually prefer the brands that are filtered tap water to the brands that call themselves "spring water".

I don't mind if I'm paying for repackaged tap water. I'm paying for the convenience of not having to install of rigorous filtering facility to get the same result.

Now I will admit that I have no guarantee that the water is really as pristinely filtered as the company says, so in that case, I don't what I always do: I use my taste buds.

there are better options for filtered water

In general, I think bottled water is a bad idea. There are better, cheaper, more environmentally friendly options out there that all of the haters never seem to bring up. The one thing I haven't figured out is the convenience. Bottled water still has all the options beat on that account. I'd like to say this: Though I don't think bottled water is a good idea, I think it's absolutely ridiculous that places are talking about banning it because, if we're going to outlaw bottled water, why aren't we talking about outlawing soda in plastic bottles, too? It makes no sense.

So on to the options.

buying water in prepackaged gallon jugs

Unlike all of the options below, there's no "setup" cost for this: you go to a grocery store, you buy a gallon jug of water. I use this option from time to time as a backup, and my recommendations would be to either by distilled or reverse osmosis filtered water. Those taste the best to me.

The good: easy to get started, cheaper than bottled, less to recycle (1 gallon jug as opposed to several bottles), you can use it as a semi portable version of regular bottled water if you don't mind being seen chugging water out of a gallon jug.

The bad: still requires plastic, transportation costs, still creates something that needs to be recycled.

Approximate cost: there are more expensive options, but I stick to the stuff that's around 60 cents to a dollar per gallon.

refilling water in your own container

Have you seen those big water dispenser things in grocery stores (e.g. Culligan)? This is what I'm talking about.

This is my personal favorite in regards to cost and convenience.

After some trial and error, this was the strategy I came up with: I had 3 plastic jugs: 2 that were 1 gallon and 1 that was a 5 gallon. The 5 gallon jug ends up being somewhere in the range of 50 pounds when it's full, so it's not for the faint of heart.

I had a funnel and I would pour water from the 5 gallon into the single gallon jugs. The single gallon jugs fit just fine in the refrigerator, and having 2 of them meant that there was always cold water ready to go. And of course, there's the obvious point that it's way easier to pour a glass of water from the ~10 pound single gallon jug than from the ~50 pound 5 gallon jug.

This worked very well for awhile until one of my plastic jugs started to leak. Though it was supposed to be BPA free plastic, I had concerns about plastic in general, so I decided to replace the jug with a glass one. I decided to convert all of my jugs to glass, with the exception of the 5 gallon. A 5 gallon plastic jug is just about at the top of my (current) lifting capability. A 5 gallon glass jug would've been too much. So over time, I've just built up to having 4 glass gallon jugs so that I don't have to hit a grocery store for refills as often.

The good: fairly cheap to get started, reasonable per gallon cost, nothing to recycle.

The bad: transportation costs of the bulk water (though, one of my bulk water sources actually filters the water at the store), requires planning ahead so that you don't run out of filtered water.

Approximate cost: ~$10 for a single gallon jug. ~40 cents per gallon.

filtering your own water

There are tons of options in this category and I won't even pretend to know what I'm talking about since I've personally chosen to go the "bulk" water route.

If you're concerned about cost, this category can be either fantastic or quite daunting as the setup costs vary greatly.

Based on the setup costs, this is my best guess as to the order of the make-your-own-water systems:

  • pitchers (like the Brita and Pur stuff you see for sale everywhere)
  • faucet filters (ditto)
  • under sink filters
  • gravity filters
  • whole house filtration systems

The good: the cheapest per gallon (don't forget to factor in the cost you pay for the tap water), no water transportation costs.

The bad: can be very expensive to get started, can be difficult to install, overwhelming amount of options.

Approximate cost: greatly varies. The things to consider are:

  • what is the initial cost of the equipment
  • how much do the filters themselves cost per gallon (e.g., I've seen some that can filter 100 gallons, some that can filter 500)
  • how much you pay for tap water
  • are there any maintenance costs
  • (hopefully just in the cast of the lower end stuff) what is the likelihood that you'll have to replace/repair the initial equipment

going portable

The big thing that I've never been able to solve personally is portability. Bottled water still has everyone beat on that in my experience.

(To help distinguish between retail plastic water bottles and the bottles you buy and put your own water in, I'm going to call the latter "containers".)

There are some water containers you can buy that have the filters built right in. I don't have any experience with these, but presumably this would be the option because you could get your "source" water from anywhere.

Personally, I'm trying to get in the habit of using my stainless steel containers. I would recommend that you buy a container that is either short enough or has a wide enough mouth that you can clearly see the interior. This will make it much easier to tell when you're about to overfill it.

The biggest problem I've run into with the containers is planning. Previously, I would buy a huge case of plastic bottled water and have it in my vehicle (fair warning: if you do this in the winter the bottles will swell and then will often leak). So I didn't have to think about it. If I got thirsty and I didn't have any filtered water where I was at, I could just go back to my car and get some more.

But I've run into problems with my new system, because I'm just not in the habit of filling a container with filtered water before I leave the house. Plus, I'm out of luck if I drink all of that one container.

So there's tons of room for improvement in my own system. If you've figured this out, then let me know how you've made it work for you.

parting advice on doing a taste test

It took me years before I consciously realized something: I could stand tap water when it was cold (it still tasted bad though), but it was so much nastier when it was room temperature.

So if you're trying to decide between two different brands of filters or just doing a taste test between bottled water and your own tap, try leaving it out so that it warms to room temperature. You might be surprised.

In the end, ignore everyone else and pick whichever one tastes better to you. And if you can't tell the difference, congratulations. You can drink whatever you want.