State and local governments looking for ways to save money and create human health and environmental benefits are putting a cap on bottled water purchases. Bottled water is 750 to 2,700 times more expensive per gallon than tap water, raises human health concerns about the contaminants leaching from the plastic bottles and creates a sizeable plastic waste stream.

Nonprofit groups such as Corporate Accountability International (CAI) and Environmental Working Group (EWG) are pushing governments to cut back spending for bottled water and invest that money in other more beneficial uses, including expanding public water sources. A recent CAI report highlights the hundreds of thousands of dollars states like Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Vermont are spending on bottled water at a time when they are facing massive budget deficits, hiring freezes and furloughs.

CAI spokesperson Debra Lapidus also noted the irony of governments buying bottled water when those same governments provide taxpayers with high-quality tap water in their homes. "It's like chefs refusing to eat their own cooking," Lapidus suggests.

Acknowledging the high cost of bottled water and the high quality of local tap water, San Francisco; Ann Arbor, Mich.; Davis, Calif.; Morrow Bay, Calif.; San Jose, Calif.; and Seattle are prohibiting the use of public funds to buy bottled water, with some of them making exceptions for emergency responders. Three states (Illinois, New York and Virginia) and more than 100 cities are taking other actions to cut spending on bottled water.

The cost savings can be significant. Seattle examined the costs of its bottled water purchases and discovered bottled water costs an average of $8 per gallon while its high-quality tap water costs $0.3 cents per gallon.

Santa Clara, Calif., conservatively estimates its transition away from a $131,151 per year contract for bottled-water drinking-coolers to water fountains will save between $16,755 and $236,755 over five years. Its cost estimate includes the costs of installing, running and maintaining the water fountains.

Working with CAI, the Responsible Purchasing Network (RPN) has produced a variety of resources to help governments reduce bottled water purchases. The Bottled Water Alternatives report, available on the RPN website (www.responsiblepurchasing.org), provides detailed information on the price, risks and benefits of bottled water alternatives. It also includes information on governments making the switch, sample policy language, purchasing specification recommendations and an online calculator to compare the cost and environmental impacts of bottled water with tap water.

Which is safer?

Bottled water sales have risen in recent years as bottled water manufacturers and suppliers began raising doubts about the safety and quality of tap water. Environmental Working Group (EWG), an environmental nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., challenges the notion that bottled water is safer. It notes that tap water is actually regulated and monitored more closely than bottled water. EWG also identified 38 chemical contaminants in the 10 major brands of bottled water it tested. Its tests suggest filtered tap water is the safest and most environmentally preferable option. Test results are available on its website at www.ewg.org/ourwater/bottled-water.

About the author

Scot Case has been researching and promoting responsible purchasing issues for 16 years. He is vice president of TerraChoice Enivronmental Marketing, which manages the EcoLogo program. Contact him via e-mail at scase@terrachoice.com or in Reading, Pa., at 610-779-3770.