Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink. That was the curse of the ancient mariner on the high and salty seas. It’s also the mantra of modern America. Unless, of course, you happen to come across a gleaming display case with plastic bottles of the stuff.

Americans now drink more than 43 billion bottles of water each year. Never mind that tap water is practically free. If Jennifer Aniston says we should drink Smart Water, well then, we must be dumb not to drink it. She should know.

Americans now drink more than 43 billion bottles of water each year. Never mind that tap water is practically free.

If someone from the past traveled to the present day, their most startling sight might be that of people buying bottled water. Paying for drinking water? What’s next, paying for the air we breathe? And yet, in little more than a decade, America has gone gaga for bottled water. We are now spending more than $13 billion a year on H2O in plastic and glass containers—mostly plastic, which is more than double the amount at the turn of the millennium.

3936_thumbYes, we understand that people are concerned with the quality of their tap water — one reason why Brita water filter sales will probably top $400 million this year. But it doesn’t fully explain our crazy obsession with plastic bottled water. If you’re worried about contaminants in tap water, you should probably be worried about the plastic molecules in those water bottles as well.

Is it the taste? You might argue that the silica found in Fiji water makes it smoother, and worth all the trouble to ship it 6,000 miles to our shore. But no way does Dasani, Nestlé’s Pure Life or Aquafina taste like bubbling spring water. More like salty metal water. Maybe that’s because it’s nothing but tap water they’ve filtered, then added minerals like salt to give it a bite.

Maybe it has to do with the design. The most expensive of the leading brands of bottled water is VOSS. It costs more than Perrier, Pelligrino, Aqua Panna, Evian or even Fiji. It comes from Norway, and got a big boost from Women’s Health in 2007, which rated it the best among bottled waters. Less publicized was a test sponsored by Finland’s national broadcasting company, in which three blindfolded wine experts rated it less tasty than Finland’s public tap water. So it must be that cylinder design, which makes it feel like a spent radioactive fuel cell from a nuclear reactor. Or like an artillery shell. It feels powerful and sleek, so it must be good.

Convenience is, of course, a big factor. Being able to grab a bottle of cold water from a convenience store is, well, highly convenient. We Americans are willing to pay the price, and not just in terms of what it costs from our pockets. According to the Pacific Institute, the combined resources used to make and ship those bottles is the equivalent of filling each one a quarter full of oil.

As for out-of-pocket expenses, that depends on how much water you drink every year. If we go with conservative estimates from the Mayo Clinic for your beverage needs, drinking nothing but bottled water would cost about $1,000 a year for recycled tap water like Dasani or Aquafina, about $1,500 a year for the imported or designer stuff like Evian, Fiji or Smart Water, and more than $2,000 a year for Voss. Drink from the tap and you’ll spend less than $2 a year.

Of course, now that it’s becoming a precious commodity, bottled water is reaching new heights of designer madness. In posh places in New York and L.A., upscale restaurants now have water menus. At Ray’s and Stark Bar in L.A., the water menu reaches 44 pages, with descriptions like this for Aqua Panna: “The first sip has a pleasant, fresh taste due to the low acid and low mineral salt content. Not without structure, it imparts a taste that is as light as a feather, pleasantly soft and velvety.”

Luxury water brands are also on the loose. At $12 bucks a bottle, Voss is pricey, yes. But that’s nothing compared to Japan’s two most expensive brands, Kona Nigari, which costs $402 for a 750ml bottle (see chart) and Fillico, which costs $219 for the same amount.

At $12 bucks a bottle Voss is pricey, yes. But nothing compared to Japan’s two most expensive brands, Kona Nigari, which costs $402 for a 750ml bottle and Fillico, which costs $219 for the same amount.

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As for concerns we’re drinking too much bottled water in a time of drought (that means you, California), that’s a bit of huffing and puffing. Despite articles to the contrary, the amount taken from springs or taps in Cali is relatively insignificant. Los Angeles alone uses more tap water in three weeks than all the bottled water used in the entire state each year, including water shipped out of state.

As for the brands that fill our shelves, and somehow lure us to spend a thousand times more per drink than tap water, here is a quick look at the top U.S. brands.

This is the number one brand in the U.S., launched in 1999 by Coca-Cola after rival Pepsi kicked butt with Aquafina. Dasani is made with tap water that it filters using the reverse osmosis process, adding a few minerals like Epsom salt, potassium chloride, and table salt.

Nestlé Water Pure Life
Their website promotes its product as ‘naturally calorie- and sugar-free.’ They also tell you how it’s filtered through a 12-step process.

Pepsi use an ultraviolet and ozone sterilization process on its water. The government finally made it add a disclaimer in 2007 that the water comes from a “public source.”

Poland Spring
This is the biggest brand that actually comes from springs. The water doesn’t actually come from Poland. It’s bottled from springs in Maine, where it once came from the Poland Spring. They haven’t used that spring since the 1970s, but a brand is a brand.

Glacéau Smartwater
The motto is ‘inspired by the clouds.’ The idea is that it’s vapor-distilled. Then electrolytes are added. Then you hire Jennifer Aniston to look cute in huge display ads on billboards and in bus stops.


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