ATLANTA: For growing numbers of consumers around the world, bottled water is a convenient, healthy and fashionable way to remain hydrated.
To critics, however, the product is a shameful extravagance, creating unnecessary waste, straining scarce water resources and using vast quantities of energy to produce and transport.
That latter view is reinforced by a new US study questioning the world's rising thirst for bottled water. The Washington-based Earth Policy Institute says global consumption of bottled water has grown by 57 per cent over the past five years, despite the fact the product is often no healthier than tap water and costs up to 10,000 times more.
Emily Arnold, the author of the report, complains that the $100bn (£57bn, euro84bn) spent each year on bottled water is nearly seven times the sum invested in providing safe drinking water in developing countries.
The report highlights increasing scrutiny of bottled water producers such as Nestlé, Danone, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo by environmental and human rights activists, especially in places where water is scarce. Much of Ms Arnold's ire is focused on the energy wastage and pollution involved in producing and distributing a product that can, in many parts of the world, be obtained much more efficiently through a tap.
She says that 40 per cent of bottled water comes from a municipal source rather than a natural spring, including leading US brands such as Coke's Dasani and PepsiCo's Aquafina. "Often the only difference [from tap water] is added minerals," says the report.
In the US more than 1.5m barrels of crude oil are used annually to make plastic bottles for water, enough to fuel 100,000 cars for a year. Nearly 90 per cent of bottles are disposed of after one use and take 1,000 years to biodegrade. Of those that are recycled, nearly 40 per cent are exported to China, adding to the drain on resources.
Further fossil fuels are used to distribute the product, with nearly a quarter of bottled water crossing at least one national border to reach consumers, according to Ms Arnold. That contrasts sharply, she argues, with the energy-efficient distribution of tap water.
Bottled water has become one of the strongest sources of growth for beverage companies as consumers in much of the world shift away from sugary soft drinks to healthier alternatives.
The US is the world's largest consumer of bottled water and Italians drink the most per person. But the fastest growth is coming in developing countries, with consumption tripling in India and more than doubling in China over the past five years, according to the report.
Ms Arnold alleges that a Coca-Cola water bottling plant in India has caused water shortages in 50 surrounding villages. Coke says an independent investigation found it was not to blame.