Is bottled water really better than tap water?

Published on 06/09/2022 Last updated on 23/10/2023

Tap water in the Netherlands is one of the best in the world. Regardless of this, we drink 400 million liters of bottled water each year. Bottled water is more expensive, comes from the same sources as tap water, and has to meet fewer quality requirements. So why are we choosing it over what flows from the tap? And are we right to do so?

You’ve probably ordered a Spa Blue at a sunny terrace. Spa has become synonymous with water. This water, extracted in Belgium, east of Liège and close to the German border, has been drunk since antiquity. The ancient Romans believed the water had medicinal powers. Today, Spa Monopole produces 440 million liters of water a year.

Spring water or mineral water? 

There are two main types of bottled water: mineral water and spring water.

Both of them are extracted from natural or underground sources. Spring water flows to the surface from an underground spring. Mineral water comes from underground sources that are usually geologically protected from pollution and contamination. Mineral water, such as Spa water, must be bottled at the source, while spring water can be bottled elsewhere.

In order to be labeled as such, mineral water must contain minerals such as iron, salt, calcium and magnesium. According to the Commodities Act Decree on Packaged Waters, mineral water must contain at least 150 milligrams of minerals per liter.

Both mineral and spring waters may be treated at the source to remove any impurities or undesirable elements by filtration, decanting, oxygenation or ozone-treatment.

And tap water? Well, you might be interested to know that in 60% of cases, tap water is extracted from the same source as spring water. In that respect, there isn’t much difference between tap water and that expensive bottle of spring water.

Tap water is 150 to 500 times cheaper

There is one marked difference, however: both spring and mineral waters are more expensive. At a terrace, a bottle of Spa Blue will cost you at least € 2. In the supermarket, a pack of six bottles will cost on average € 0,77 per liter. Get your water from the tap, and you’ll pay much less. Drinking water company Vitens charges € 0,70 (plus a real estate fee) for a thousand liters of water. According to the Dutch Nutrition Centre, tap water is between 150 to 500 times cheaper than bottled water.

Despite the price difference, bottled water consumption has increased in the Netherlands. From 330 million litres per year in 2011 to almost 500 million litres in 2020. That’s around 24 litres of bottled water per person per year. In Europe, Italy has the highest consumption of bottled water, at just over 188 liters per person per year. Perhaps this points to the high quality and good flavor of Dutch tap water. According to statistics, we use around 134 liters of tap water per day, but only 1,3 liters of that is used for coffee, tea and drinking water. The average cost for this is around €1 per day.

Utrecht mineral water

Mineral water isn’t just extracted in Belgium, it also comes from the Netherlands. Bar-le-Duc, a well-known bottled water brand, extracts its water from a depth of 140 meters at the Lage Weide estate in Utrecht. French bottled water producer Sourcy has been extracting mineral water from the Utrechtse Heuvelrug, in Bunnik, since 1988 [ref:]. Drinking water company Vitens gets its water from both sources [no ref found for this info]. You could say that in Utrecht, Sourcy and Bar-le-Duc mineral waters flow from the tap!

Water from abroad

We also import mineral water from abroad. For example, Albert Heijn sells German mineral water (interestingly, at half the price of its water from Limburg). Kruidvat sells water from Hong Kong.

In 2015, 1,9 million liters of mineral water were imported from countries outside the EU, while 220 million liters were imported from EU countries. Obtaining water from other countries has an environmental impact. The water is transported via trucks and ships, and this means CO2 emissions.

The impact of bottled water: 400 times more CO2 emissions

The use of plastic bottles is also a cause for environmental concern. In Europe, just 46% of plastic bottles are recycled. The rest of these bottles end up on landfills or in our environment, for example our waterways and oceans.

And glass bottles? They don’t deserve their green halo. A recent study by the University of Southampton found that glass is more damaging to the environment because it is mined from rare materials and needs more fossil fuels to be produced and transported. As for recycling glass bottles, this is an energy-consuming process involving several steps such as cleaning, sorting, crushing, melting and reforming.

Statistics show that the CO2 footprint of a 1.5 liter bottle of water is between 323-447 grams of CO2. For comparison, traveling by car emits around 192 grams of CO2 per kilometer. When it comes to emissions, there is a clear winner. In an assessment of the impact of water different types of drinking water, a study published in the journal Nature found that bottled water has 300 times the carbon footprint of tap water.

Microplastics in water 

But that’s not all. There are microplastics to consider. A shocking study by the State University of New York found that 9 out of 10 bottles of water are contaminated with plastic particles. Researchers sampled 259 bottles from 11 brands and nine different countries, and found an average of 325 microplastic particles per liter. They also found microplastic contamination in water from glass bottles. Microplastics end up in the water partly because of contact with the plastic bottle, and partly due to the bottling process.

What about microplastics in tap water? It won’t surprise you to learn that they’re present there as well, but in much lower concentrations. A study by OrbMedia found that 83% of tap water around the world contains microplastics. In Europe, the average was 1.9 particles per 500ml of water.

Microplastics and the body

What effects do microplastics have on our health? That remains unclear. According to research by the European Food Safety Authority, 90% of microplastics are eliminated by the body, but the remaining 10% can stay stuck, building up in the lymphatic system.

Scientists have now found traces of plastic in organ tissue, a sign that microplastics are accumulating in the body. While no studies have been done to assess the impact of this, we know that some chemicals in plastic are highly toxic to health. Bisphenol A, for example, has been linked to hormonal problems and cancer.

Why is tap water purer than bottled water?

This phenomenon could be explained by strong legislation in the Netherlands, where tap water has to meet very high standards. Drinking water companies work hard to purify the water they collect from surface water and groundwater sources, to stick to the limits set out for 65 substances in the Drinking Water Decree. But bottled water isn’t bound by the same rules. The Packaged Water Decree sets limits for just 15 substances (antimony, arsenic, barium, cadmium, chrome, copper, cyanide, fluoride, lead, manganese, mercury, nickel, nitrate, nitrite and selenium). As a result, tap water tends to contain fewer undesirable substances than bottled water.

Zero water purifies your tap water

Tap water might contain fewer contaminants than bottled water, but it isn’t perfect either. If you want to make sure that there are no unwanted substances in your drinking water, you need to filter them out. ZeroWater filters removes lead, glyphosate, PFAS (PFOS/PFOA), copper and more. Interested? Take a look at our webshop.