Where does your water come from? Tap vs bottled water.


“Most people don’t think where their water comes from

they just turn on the tap and expect the water to be there”

– FLOW: For the Love Of Water

Clearly, without water we are nowhere. We need water to survive. Yet, do you know where the water you drink comes from?

Growing up in a clean town in the Netherlands -a country with water in abundance and effective water cleaning facilities in place- most of my life I have taken the supply of clean tap water for granted. However, spending time in other countries and majoring in environmental science I realized that a steady supply of clean water is a very precious thing that not everyone has access to.

Clean drinking water isn’t always within reach

The first time I was confronted with the vulnerability of water supply was when I lived in the beautiful city Östersund, right in the geographical center of Sweden. In the winter of 2010, an estimated 27,000 people (45% of the city!) fell ill after drinking tap water that turned out to be contaminated with the parasite Cryptosporidium hominis.

Thankfully I seldom am ill, but even my body could not handle the parasite and I have felt ill for several weeks. We could no longer simply drink the water from the tap, but had to boil the water first. While this is normal in many parts of the world, such a situation is highly unusual for Sweden where there is so much water and so little pollution.

It took almost three months for the municipality to identify the source of the problem and install a new filter in the municipal water supply facilities. The impact on health and economy was big, as were environmental impacts. The sales of bottled water increased enormously. Some local stores sold eight (!) times as much bottled water than usual. Shops reported that bottled water accounted for 8% of the turnover, instead of a bleak 1% before the outbreak.

This outbreak really was an eye-opener. I now realize how vulnerable our water supplies are. I am very grateful for clean tap water, and ever since appreciate it much more.

The second time I was confronted with water issues was last March, when we moved from the Hague in the Netherlands (a city with excellent tap water quality due to filtering through local sand dunes) to Beijing, we were instantly faced with a dilemma: Where do we get our water from?

As you probably have heard, China has severe environmental problems, including water pollution. At the same time, there is a strong feeling of distrust towards the food industry in the Chinese society. We could either choose to drink boiled tap water or to buy bottled water. The latter you can either get in the supermarket or you can buy bottled water in bulk, meaning large bottles carrying about 20 liters of mineral water. These big bottles are delivered right to your home by guys on carrier tricycles.

Upon arrival in Beijing, not quite sure what to do, I did some research. I found an article and short video by a Chinese water specialist. She recommended drinking bottled water. Our dislike of bottled water is very strong, not only because it adds to the plastic soup and may damage our health due to the chemicals used in the plastic, but also because I am not sure what the quality of this bottled water is -just like Chinese people aren’t sure about what’s in their food. The documentary Flow discusses this and other water related issues.


So faced with the dilemma of tap water vs bottled water, we signed up for the Happy Water Journey or 乐水行 in Chinese. This is a weekly tour along selected stretches of water ways in Beijing. It is organized by a local NGO called Green Earth Volunteers (绿家园) to create awareness about the state of our water, including both the quality and the quantity of water.

The tour confirmed once again the severe problems Beijing faces with regard to water. Although the tour guide emphasized that water ways have become much cleaner over the past years, water is still polluted. As are the river banks. Plastic is everywhere. Moreover and perhaps even more pressing, is the shortage of water. To tap fresh water, wells are drilled a thousand (1,000!) meter deep.


Plastic along the shores of a river in Beijing.

Nonetheless, we decided to stubbornly stick with drinking boiled tap water. We will only be in China temporarily, so the polluted water should not have a lasting impact on our health we figured…

From tap water to bottled water

Recently the weather has turned very hot. It’s 25 degrees when we get up and temperatures go up during the day. To avoid dehydration we drink loads of water. But boiling water makes our tiny apartment humid and even hotter. This made us decide to start buying bottled water. In bulk. The bottles that are delivered contain about 20 liters of water. That gets us through a couple of days. The delivery guy told me the bottles are refilled after usage. We are still not sure about the quality of this water, but have no way to trace its source. We just accept this for the moment and appreciate not having to boil water for a while. Yet, because they are allegedly refilled, these huge bottles feel better than smaller bottles that you can get at the supermarket.

Water dispenser

Water dispenser with 20 ltr water bottles.

Help others get access to clean tap water

A while ago we stumbled upon Charity Water. This organization helps to provide people around the world with access to clean drinking water. 800 million people don’t have access to clean drinking water. That is 1 in 9 of us! My husband donated some money to help the organization install filters. His decision was motivated by the pledge that 100% of public donations directly fund projects in the field. After donating, you receive three updates over an 18 month period that explains where your money went to, the work on the ground, and where exactly (GPS coordinates) the project was realized. Highly recommended to donate.

Do you know where your tap water comes from and what its quality is? Ever taken a tour at the local drinking water plant? If faced with the polluted tap water vs bottled water dilemma, what would you do?


About Author


In 2013, after reading yet another article about plastic soup, Annemieke started her Dutch blog Plasticminimalism where she documented her small steps towards life with less plastic. To create more awareness about the adverse impacts of our plastic consumption, she launched Plastic-Free Tuesday in spring 2014. She strongly believes that building a better world starts by changing our own behavior. Annemieke is trained in environmental science and policy. She alternates living in the Netherlands, Sweden, the US, and China.


  1. Thank you for bringing light to such a pervasive and awful situation that so many are facing. Those of us in the US don’t think about water safety much either, but a few months ago there was a chemical spill in a West Virginia river that affected the drinking water of thousands of people. It made me grateful we haven’t had an issue like that where I am (yet), and drove home the importance of pollution and chemical regulations for our drinking water.

  2. Marlies

    Hi everone,
    Just a short update on this issue here, as I’ve just asked some attention on Instagram for a petition currently run by Story of Stuff which relates to your post here. The petition is against the world-wide bottling practices of fresh water reserves by huge corporation Nestlé, meaning that this fresh water is shipped for Nestlé’s commercial gain from communities who may need their local water themselves, in plastic bottles, to places where that water is not necessarily needed (e.g. to the Netherlands where tap water is of such high quality, but so many people consume commercial water!) So water bottles carry this dual dynamic/problem: it’s plastic, and its about unsustainable water use. Two very serious problems. You can find the petition here!


    Also, as a human rights lawyer myself, I take issue with the fact that Nestlé considers the human right to water an ‘extreme position’, even while this right was clearly recognized by the United Nations during last decade. This right means that people in all local communities everywhere have a right to access clean water supplies, yet, it does not involve the shipping of good water to places where this water is not needed, for personal gain of companies.. There needs to be another way, and a focus on keeping/making tap water available for all in a clean way. That just makes way more sense.

    On a personal note, I did run into the bottled water conundrum myself on holidays to Italy recently, where everyone seems to buy bottled, also locals. I was not sure what to do here, and ended up taking bottled water as well. Yet, I was so disturbed by it, that I think next time I will look into local water quality and travel with a portable water filter: e.g. see http://mashable.com/2013/09/01/filtration-water-bottles/. I’ve seen them sold here, I will look into it. Will save so many plastic bottles on holidays! Annemieke, is a filter a solution for the Beijing system too, or will it not deal with metals etc..?

    What are other people’s thoughts? Would love to hear them!


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