Pricey bottled water preferred by nearly half of Philadelphians, but at what cost? | Perspective

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3D render illustration of the row of plastic bottles with clear purified drink carbonated water isolated on white background with selective focus effect

Philadelphia has a drinking-water problem – and it is not the safety of the water. The problem is that too many Philadelphians — a staggering 43 percent — are not actually drinking the water that comes out of their home faucets.  Instead, they’re purchasing bottled water, which is estimated to cost nearly 2,000 times the price of tap water.

The resulting drain on the pocketbooks of lower-income Philadelphians — not to mention the well-established environmental and health hazards — is undoubtedly harmful to the prosperity of the city.

The Philadelphia Water Department (PWD) and Fels ImpactED at the University of Pennsylvania conducted a survey to better understand the drinking habits of Philadelphians. We not only found that 43 percent of Philadelphians primarily drink bottled water instead of water out of the tap when at home, but we also discovered that those choices varied widely by level of education, income, race, and gender.

  • Only 14 percent of Philadelphians who have a college degree or higher report drinking bottled water most often at home, compared with a whopping 54 percent of Philadelphians with a high school diploma or less.
  • 15 percent of households with an income of more than $150,000 per year drink bottled water most often while at home, while 59 percent of households with an income of less than $20,000 do; a counterintuitive dynamic since tap water costs one cent per gallon.
  • By race, 18 percent of white residents drink bottled water most often at home, while 63 percent of black and 71 percent of Latino residents do.
  • There are significant differences by gender as well: 50 percent of females compared with 36 percent of males reported drinking bottled water most often at home.

It’s startling that Philadelphians who have less disposable income are spending more of their money buying water, and that differing consumption habits are so starkly aligned with education and income.

So why are some Philadelphians not drinking tap water and instead opting to buy bottles?

Here’s a fascinating statistic: bottled-water sales in Philadelphia increased by 13 percent after the soda tax took effect in 2017. Conservative estimates calculate the cost of drinking bottled water over tap at more than $1,000 per year. And this is occurring in populations of the city that can least afford this inflated cost. 

Why didn’t they choose to simply drink water out of the tap for one cent a gallon? One reason might be that some people — 33 percent —  just don’t trust that the water is safe. The survey showed that trust in water safety is strongly associated with drinking-water decisions. All of the groups of people who drink bottled water most often — those with lower levels of education, lower income, minorities, and females — are the same people who are less likely to trust the water.

The fact that less educated, poorer, and minority residents are drinking bottled water at high rates raises many questions about the ways in which Philadelphians think about the water that comes out of the faucet, and their perceptions of city government and current events.

How are residents determining if the water infrastructure in their own homes is safe? And if it is not, how should they manage? What do people think about the odor, taste, and clarity of Philadelphia water? What’s the role of current events, such as the Flint, Mich., crisis? And local policies such as the soda tax? And what motivates people from different demographic groups to choose differently?

We don’t yet have the answers to these questions, but we have formed a working group composed of academics and PWD and city staff, funded by the Penn Fels Policy Research Initiative. Understanding how Philadelphians think about water will help with outreach to targeted residents about drinking-water choices.

Regardless of Philadelphians’ motivations for drinking bottled water, the implications are immense. Increased bottled-water consumption inevitably leads to increased trash, both on Philadelphia’s city streets and in places, like the ocean, where misplaced plastic accumulates into enormous gyres. For individuals, the financial burden of drinking bottled water hits lowest-income residents the hardest. In addition, drinking out of disposable plastic is associated with countless health risks, like diseases, bacteria exposure, and infertility.

We believe the working group can make a real impact and are excited to share our findings, which could help Philadelphians slash their grocery bills, keep their neighborhoods clean, and reduce the health dangers associated with drinking from plastic.

Nina Hoe is the director of evaluation at the Fels Institute of Government at the University of Pennsylvania. ninahoe@upenn.edu