From birth to ban, glass to plastic: A global history of bottled water
Up until the 1950s, bottled water was sold mainly in glass containers. Afterwards, the industry made the switch to plastic bottles due to advancements in technology, cost and convenience. Currently, campaigners predict that the number of plastic bottled water purchased will jump another 20% by 2021, creating an environmental crisis some speculate will be as serious as climate change.
How did this happen?
1621 – Water was first bottled for sale in the United Kingdom’s Holy Well bottling plant. The practice grew popular with the bottling of mineral spring water across Europe and the U.S. in the 1700s, since natural springs were believed to have healing and therapeutic effects. For this reason, bottled water was often sold as a medicinal remedy in pharmacies until the 1900s.
1767 – The first commercially distributed water in America was bottled and sold by Jackson’s Spa. Early drinkers of bottled spa waters believed that bathing in or drinking the water could help treat many common ailments.
1773 – Joseph Priestley, who would discover oxygen in 1775, made his first contributions to the field of chemistry by dissolving carbon dioxide in water, for which he was awarded the Copley Medal. He would go on to work with Johann Jacob Schweppe, founder of Schweppes, in developing “aerated” waters for commercial sale.[Image credit]
1809 – The popularity of bottled mineral waters quickly led to a market for imitation products. Carbonated waters developed as a means for approximating the natural effervescence of spring-bottled water, after Joseph Hawkins was issued the first U.S. patent for “imitation” mineral water.
19th century – As technological innovation in 19th century lowered glass costs and increased bottling speed, bottled water production boomed and the beverage grew in popularity. This, coupled with the public’s fear of cholera and typhoid, leads to millions of bottles being sold annually in the U.S. by the mid-1800s.
1905 – An English doctor ends the waterborne typhoid epidemic with chlorination, which uses chlorine to kill dangerous bacteria. The demand for purified bottled water wanes.
1947 – Plastic bottles were first used commercially but remained relatively expensive until the early 1950s when high-density polyethylene was introduced. They quickly became popular with both manufacturers and customers due to their lightweight nature, superior resistance to breakage, and relatively low production and transportation costs compared with glass bottles.
1973 – Dupont engineer Nathaniel Wyeth patented polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles, the first plastic bottles able to withstand the pressure of carbonated liquids, thus creating a much cheaper alternative to bottling than was possible with glass.
1973 – Federal quality standards for bottled water were first adopted in 1973. They were based on U.S. Public Health Service standards for drinking water set in 1962. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) took responsibility for the regulation of bottled water as a packaged food product. In the 1970s, 350 million gallons of bottled water were being sold in the U.S. – about a gallon and a half per person per year.
1977 to 1981 – Perrier positioned itself as “Earth’s first soft drink” with a series of print and television ads, benchmarking the moment when bottled water began its commercial dominance.
Early 2000s – The tap vs. bottled war was fully engaged, with beverage companies playing to consumers’ fears of illness and contamination from tap sources.
2003 – Americans consumed about 50,000,000,000 (or 50 billion) plastic water bottles this year.
2009 – In response to environmental and financial concerns, a few localities and U.S. colleges banned bottled water sales. The small New South Wales town of Bundanoon voted to become the first town in the world to ban the selling or dispensing of bottled water.
2013 – Concord, Massachusetts was the first town in the United States to ban the sales of bottled water. Specifically, sales of non-sparkling, unflavored drinking water in single-serving PET bottles of 1 litre or less are prohibited.
2016 – More than 480 billion plastic drinking bottles were sold across the world this year. Fewer than half of the bottles bought were collected for recycling and just 7% of those collected were turned into new bottles. Most plastic bottles produced end up in landfill or in the ocean.
2017 – A study published by Orb media, a non-profit journalism organization based in Washington, D.C., showed that a single bottle of bottled water, can hold dozens or possibly even thousands of microscopic plastic particles. Tests on more than 250 bottles (both plastic and glass) from 11 brands reveal contamination with plastic including polypropylene, nylon, and PET.
2018 – Following the discovery of microplastics in drinking water, the World Health Organization launches a review into the safety of drinking microplastics. #BeatPlasticPollution was also chosen this year as the theme of World Environment Day. Companies and governments around the world continue to announce new pledges to tackle plastic waste.