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From concerns about algae and the aquifer to the overuse of bottled water, this series explores some of the pressing water issues facing north central Florida, as well as possible solutions.

Water Worries | Bottled water usage raises environmental concerns

Navigate the full "Water Worries" series below:

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Editor's note: A previous version of this story misstated the ownership structure of BlueTriton Brands.

All across the University of Florida campus, people can find one consistent item: bottled water. Whether stocked in vending machines in every building, sold at sporting events or handed out at professional luncheons and conferences, bottled water is present around every corner.

And more plastic appears to be on the horizon. In a world where convenience often trumps sustainability, the popularity of bottled water is expected to rise by 2.9% by 2025.

Yet behind these refreshing portions of water with labels displaying images of pristine springs lie complex environmental concerns, economic implications and broader impacts on society.

The production, distribution and disposal of bottled water has a ripple effect on ecosystems and communities worldwide. Plastic, a primary component of water bottles, contributes to the escalating crisis of water pollution.

About 20,000 plastic bottles are purchased every second worldwide.
(Maya Erwin/WUFT News)
About 20,000 plastic bottles are purchased every second worldwide.

According to David Wood, a professional geologist at the Alachua County Solid Waste & Resource Recovery Administration, disposable plastic bottles that aren’t recycled and end up in landfills would take far more than a human’s lifetime to completely break down.

It can take 450 years, he said. And even those that end up in landfills can still pollute waterways.

“I think landfills are better constructed than they were years ago,” he said. But, “most of the landfills prior to probably 1985 did not have a bottom liner.”

Today’s bottom liners help to prevent any contaminants from the landfill from seeping into the aquifer, and in turn, groundwater.

However, while landfills and recycling companies somewhat lessen the impacts of plastic bottle waste on the aquifer, the extraction of water, itself, from the aquifer is another pressure.

Merrillee Jipson with the Our Santa Fe River nonprofit organization provided public records from Florida’s five water-management districts that show bottled water companies have been permitted to extract roughly 4.1 trillion gallons of water a year from Florida’s aquifer. Those 28 permits do not include the bottled-water companies that bottle tap water from various Florida municipal companies.

“A lot of people may think ‘oh bottled water is just a fraction, just a percentage’,” Jipson said. “And it is—until you start talking about the whole system.”

Bottled water also has larger-scale impacts on Florida’s freshwater system, she said.

“The water in bottled water is conditional to where it is being extracted from. I believe wholeheartedly that the water that is being removed on the Ginnie Springs campground land in three different wells for 984,000 gallons a day are impacting the springs that exist right there where they are being removed from,” she said.

Ginnie Springs is a privately-owned park known for tubing and camping.
(Maya Erwin/WUFT News)
Ginnie Springs is a privately-owned park known for tubing and camping.

Ginnie Springs is just one of the local springs tapped by water bottling companies such as BlueTriton Brands. The company is permitted to extract nearly a million gallons of water from Ginnie Springs each day. According to the Florida Springs Institute, the company was required to pay only a one-time application fee of $115 for this lifetime supply of freshwater.

The company referred questions about its permit to the International Bottled Water Association, which did not respond to emails.

Jipson and other advocates stress that if companies like BlueTriton continue to put pressure on the aquifer to fill plastic bottles, the aquatic ecosystems of springs and rivers could face collapse.

“One day we are going to get there, and the water systems are going to change so drastically where they are going to brown out, because that’s next,” Jipson said. “That’s what we are going to see more and more and more if we keep extracting from the source.”

So is the convenience of bottled water worth the environmental cost?

Jeffery Klugh, the Waste Collection & Alternatives Assistant Manager at the Alachua County Solid Waste & Resource Recovery Administration, said the impacts are far beyond local, too, given the transportation required to haul garbage from Gainesville to the New River Landfill in Union County, 34 miles to the north.

The county only recycles what customers set aside in their recycle bins themselves – not what may be found in dumpsters or trash cans.

“We are in charge of disposing of the garbage. We don’t have any open landfills, so right now we operate a transfer station. We truck all the garbage generated in the county to the New River Landfill,” Klugh said. “We run about anywhere from 800 to 950 tons per day.”

Klugh said when people do recycle, the county separates out so-called PET plastics like water and soda bottles. “Those have the most value.”

Other items we may think are recyclable, such as berry containers from the grocery store, are thrown out.

“Nobody will buy those,” he said.

In 2023, The Alachua County Solid Waste & Resource Recovery Administration recycled 1,442 tons of plastic bottles, a weight equal to that of 361 elephants. This is an increase of 53 tons of plastic bottles since 2022.

“Ten percent is being thrown away, the rest gets recycled,” Klugh said. “If we go through the problem of sorting it, we want to be able to recycle it.”

An Environmental Protection Agency 2018 report on plastics showed that only about 29 percent of plastic bottles are recycled nationwide.

With population expected to increase dramatically in the next 40 years, recycling centers can expect more bottled water consumption, meaning increased percentages of plastic bottles ending up in Florida’s landfills.

An increase in plastic-filled landfills is not inevitable, however, and by using tap water and reusable containers this increase can be prevented.

Navigate the full "Water Worries" series below:

Water WorriesNatural WaterTap WaterBottled WaterSolutions