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Kick the bottled-water habit

It's not just daft, it's decadent. And tap is often better.

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In 1783, George Washington visited the natural springs of Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Along with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, he took a keen interest in the supposed medicinal qualities of mineral water, a subject of much scientific research at the time. The following year, a friend wrote to him to describe the difficulty of bottling the strongly effervescent Saratoga water. "Several persons told us that they had corked it tight in bottles, and that the bottles broke," wrote Washington's friend. The birth of the United States thus coincided with the origins of bottled water.

The business of bottling water really got going in the 1790s in Switzerland, where doctors acclaimed the medicinal benefits of the artificially carbonated water sold by Nicholas Paul and Jacob Schweppe. The pair began exporting their bottled soda water in 1800, and such was its popularity in London that Benjamin Silliman, a visiting American chemistry professor, decided to set up his own soda-water venture in the US. Others soon followed suit, and bottled water became a popular health drink.

But bottled water's mass appeal really began in the US with the marketing of Perrier, imported from France, during the 1970s. In recent years, though, sparkling water has been eclipsed by still water in popularity. Last year, sales of bottled water in the United States reached $11 billion. Globally, the figure might be as high as $100 billion annually.

Go into a restaurant or a supermarket and you will be offered water from all over the planet. Bottled water might look and taste pure enough, but the whole idea stinks. For a start, bottled water is indistinguishable from tap water. Put five bottled waters up against tap water in a blind tasting and see if you can tell the difference. Los Angeles tap water came out on top in a 2006 blind tasting, beating water from New York and Seattle, among others. One judge called L.A.'s water "exceptional. Like a bottled water."

In many cases, bottled water is actually derived from tap water and filtered – which is why PepsiCo has just agreed to add the words "public water source" to the label of its Aquafina water. But water from glacial springs is not inherently superior. Worse, shipping it around causes unnecessary environmental damage. Refrigeration wastes even more energy. Then there are the millions of plastic bottles, many of which end up in landfills.


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