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U.S. bottled water sales soar to all-time high: A good sign?

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A new report from the Beverage Marketing Corporation finds that sales of bottled water in the United States reached a new pinnacle in 2011. With sales increasing by 4.1 percent, 9.1 billion gallons of bottled water were sold last year, with per capita consumption hitting 29.2 gallons, also a new U.S. record. The growth comes after two consecutive years of economic recession (2008 and 2009) in which bottled water sales suffered substantial declines.

“What’s been driving the market for more than ten years now is the single-serve bottle of non-carbonated water,” said Gary A. Hemphill, the managing director of information services for the Beverage Market Corporation by telephone. “They easily account for more than 60 percent of overall sales,” he explained, adding that the market includes sparkling water, home and office delivery jugs and imports. “They’re more of a refreshment beverage. When people are out at convenience stores, for example, more of them are choosing non-carbonated bottled water than ever before.”

When it comes to larger jugs of bottled water, Hemphill says sales are regional, and stronger in markets where people “aren’t as happy with the available tap water. Those tend to be more of a tap-water replacement, and where people can afford to make the choice. Bottled water is still considered a luxury item to a lot of people.”

Environmentally, that amounts to a lot of plastic bottles perpetually going into circulation, not to mention the carbon footprint that results from making them. On the positive side, however, it also equals more people who prefer drinking water to any number of sugar-packed choices on store shelves, and more often. Whether that water is any better than what comes out of a tap, however, is another question. 

Obviously, there’s no magic bullet to resolve this quandary. While celebrities like Matt Damon are working to make reusable water bottles more appealing (as well as help people in need), the ease of pre-bottled water is a considerable wall to climb. Do the health benefits in any way balance out the environmental impact, especially when one in three American children are considered obese? Is bottled water even really healthy? Voice your opinions in the Comments area!