Bottled water reaffirmed its position as America’s top packaged drink in 2020, outselling all other packaged beverages (by volume) for a fifth year in a row, according to new data from Beverage Marketing Corporation (BMC), New York. 

For more than a decade, consumers have been increasingly choosing bottled water. And the gap is widening, with per capita consumption of carbonated soft drinks dropping by 10 gallons since 2010, while bottled water increased by 17.4 gallons. This consumption shift, which highlights consumers’ preference for healthy hydration, means that Americans consumed nearly 5 trillion fewer calories in 2020 (15,140 calories for each person). 

Americans consumed 15 billion gallons of bottled water in 2020, up 4.2 percent from 2019 (compared with 3.7 percent increase the previous year). That means, on average, each American drank 45.2 gallons of bottled water in 2020, a 3.5 percent increase over the previous year. In addition, bottled water’s retail dollar sales grew in 2020, up 4.7 percent, reaching $36.3 billion, BMC data show.

A significant portion of bottled water’s growth (44 percent since 2010) has come from people switching to bottled water from other packaged drinks. And nine out of 10 Americans (91 percent) want bottled water to be available wherever other drinks are sold, according to a survey conducted on behalf of the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA) by The Harris Poll.

This healthy consumption shift from sugary drinks to bottled water also could work in reverse. If bottled water is not available, 74 percent of people say that they will turn to other packaged drinks, not tap water, The Harris Poll found. 

“People are choosing to drink fewer calories and making that healthy choice of bottled water has the added benefit of helping the environment. Not only are bottled water containers 100 percent recyclable (including the cap) but they also use much less plastic than soda and other packaged beverages,” said Jill Culora, IBWA’s vice president of communications, in a statement.

According to BMC Chairman and CEO Michael C. Bellas: “Upward movement in per capita consumption indicates clear, persisting demand for a product that consumers see as a healthy alternative to other beverages. Multiple inherent qualities explain bottled water’s ongoing appeal for U.S. consumers, including its association with healthfulness, convenience, safety and value.

“Bottled water’s freedom from calories and artificial ingredients appeals to many consumers,” Bellas continued. “Bottled water achieved its position at the apex of beverage rankings by enticing consumers away from other packaged beverages. Some consumers may have transitioned away from regular, full-calorie beverages in favor of their diet versions, but many others opted for bottled water instead. As some consumers became wary of artificial sweeteners, they shifted away from diet beverages as well as regular counterparts.”

Even with continuing growth and increased consumption, bottled water still has the smallest water and energy use footprint of any packaged beverage. On average, only 1.39 liters of water (including the 1 liter of water consumed) and 0.21 mega joules of energy are used to produce 1 liter of finished bottled water, the association reports. 

Most bottled water is packaged in 100 percent recyclable PET No. 1 plastic and HDPE No. 2 plastic, which are the plastics that are most recognized as being recyclable and the most recycled plastics in the world. This means consumers do not need to be confused about recycling bottled water containers because they are among the few consumer packaging types that are universally recyclable across the U.S., the association adds. Not all cities and towns recycle glass bottles and laminated paper cartons.

Among all the items that get placed in recycle bins or taken to drop-off centers, an estimated 99 percent of all PET plastic bottles get recycled. Post-consumer PET and HDPE plastic is in huge demand by industries because they want to use that recycled plastic to make more products. Many bottled water companies use recycled PET and HDPE plastic to create new bottles, which reduces the need for virgin plastic.

“Consumer preference for healthy hydration and bottled water is really good news for public health,” Culora said. “This is particularly important as the nation continues to experience high rates of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. The bottled water industry is committed to helping people make healthier choices. The demand for safe, healthy, and convenient water is evident, as bottled water continues to be America’s most popular packaged beverage, by volume.”