Blame it on convenience, laziness, or marketing brilliance (Jennifer Aniston does look good holding that Smartwater bottle), but U.S. sales of bottled water are on the rise, inching up 3.5 percent in 2010 after having dropped in recent years, to $6.4 billion a year, according to industry figures. That despite some increasingly unflattering revelations—chief among them that many brands don't even reveal where the water comes from.
In a report released earlier this year, the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization, analyzed the labels and company websites of 173 bottled waters and found that about one-fifth, including big brands Aquafina and Crystal Geyser, didn't list their source. Another one-third didn't say how the water was treated. Many popular brands, such as Poland Spring, list multiple sources (in its case, springs in Maine), leaving consumers to guess which one produced their H2O. Only three brands—Gerber Pure Purified Water, Nestle Pure Life Purified Water, and Penta Ultra-Purified Water—got the group's highest marks for disclosing source and treatment information and using the most advanced treatment methods.
Some brands might not disclose their source because they don't have to. The Environmental Protection Agency requires community water systems to divulge the source of their drinking water in an annual Consumer Confidence Report. But bottled-water makers aren't required to disclose where their water comes from, how it was treated, or what contaminants it might contain. Disclosure is purely voluntary (except in California). And the bottled stuff is subject to a less stringent safety standard than tap water.
Don't be misled by crisp blue labels and mountain vistas. Purified tap water is the source of 49 percent of bottled water produced in the U.S., according to industry data. Many consumers could cut out the middleman (and produce far less plastic waste) by investing in a water filter and reusable water bottle to tote when they're on the go.