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Published: 6/18/2008

U.S. thirst for bottled water appears slaked

ASSOCIATED PRESS
KRT LIFESTYLE STORY SLUGGED: HEALTH-BOTTLEDWATER KRT PHOTO BY JAMES F. QUINN/CHICAGO TRIBUNE (April 11) Aquafina and Dasani bottled water. (mvw) 2003 KRT LIFESTYLE STORY SLUGGED: HEALTH-BOTTLEDWATER KRT PHOTO BY JAMES F. QUINN/CHICAGO TRIBUNE (April 11) Aquafina and Dasani bottled water. (mvw) 2003
JAMES F. QUINN / KRT Enlarge

NEW YORK - Tap water is making a comeback.

With bottled water costing hundreds to thousands of dollars a year depending on the brand, more people are opting to slurp water that comes straight from the sink.

The lousy economy may be accomplishing what environmentalists have been trying to do for years - wean people off the disposable plastic bottles of water that were sold as stylish, portable, healthier, and safer than water from the tap.

Measured in 700-milliliter bottles of Poland Spring, a daily 64 ounce-intake of water would cost $4.41, based on prices at a CVS drugstore in New York. Or $6.36 in 20-ounce bottles of Dasani. By half-liters of Evian, that'll be $6.76, please.

It adds up to thousands a year.

Even a 24-pack of half-liter bottles at Costco Wholesale Corp., a bargain at $6.97, would be consumed by one person in six days. That's more than $400 a year.

But water from the tap? A little less than 0.14 cent for a day's worth of water, based on averages from an American Water Works Association survey - just about 51 cents a year.

U.S. consumers spent $16.8 billion on bottled water in 2007, according to the trade publication Beverage Digest.

That's up 12 percent from the year before - but it's the slowest growth rate since the early 1990s, said editor John Sicher.

Coca-Cola Enterprises Inc., the biggest bottler of Coca-Cola Co.'s Dasani, recently cut its outlook for the quarter, saying the weak North American economy is hurting sales of bottled water and soda - especially the 20-ounce single-serving sizes consumers had been buying at gas stations.

"They're not walking in and spending a dollar-plus for a 20-ounce bottle of water," said beverage analyst William Pecoriello at Morgan Stanley.

Flavored and "enhanced" waters like vitamin drinks are also eating into plain bottled water's market share.

Mr. Pecoriello said Americans' concern about the environment was also a factor, driven by campaigns against the use of oil in making and transporting the bottles, the waste they create, and the notion of paying for what is essentially free.

The Tappening Project, which promotes tap water in the United States as clean, safe, and more ecofriendly than bottled water, began an ad campaign in May. The company has also sold more than 200,000 reusable hard plastic and stainless steel bottles since November.

Linda Schiffman, 56, a recent retiree from Lexington, Mass., bought two metal bottles at $14.50 each for herself and her daughter from Corporate Accountability, a consumer advocate group, after she swore off buying cases of bottled water from Costco.

"I've been doing a lot of cost-cutting since I retired," said Ms. Schiffman, a former middle-school guidance counselor. "Additionally, I started feeling like this was a big waste environmentally."

Aware of those concerns, some bottled water makers are trying to address the issue.

Nestle says all its half-liter bottles now come in an "eco-shape" that contains 30 percent less plastic than the average bottle, and it has pared back other packaging. PepsiCo and Coca-Cola also have cut down on the amount of plastic used in their bottles.

While it is difficult to track rates of tap water use, sales of faucet accessories are booming.

Brita tap water purification products made by Clorox Co. reported double-digit volume and sales growth in May and have seen three straight quarters of strong growth.

Robin Jaeger of Needham, Mass., fills her kids' reusable bottles with water from the house's faucet. But she doesn't use water straight from the tap.

"My kids have come to the conclusion that any water that's not filtered doesn't taste good," she said.

Her reverse-osmosis filter system costs about $200 every 18 months for maintenance - still cheaper than buying by the bottle.

Cities and businesses, big to small, have gotten in on the action.

Marriott International Inc. distributed free refillable water bottles to the 3,500 employees at its corporate offices in Bethesda, Md., and installed multiple water filters on every floor.

Chicago started a 5-cent tax on plastic water bottles in January.

San Francisco has done away with deliveries of water jugs for office use, instead installing filters and bottleless dispensers.



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