Americans are drowning in bottled water — and in empty water bottles as well. According to the International Bottled Water Association, we spent over $12 billion on bottled water in 2013 — enough to buy 30 gallons for every person in the country.

But the national obsession with bottled water has taken a toll on the environment. Now that drought, plastic pollution and water conservation have become front-and-center environmental issues, it’s time to rethink our infatuation with bottled water.

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The pure truth about tap water

Why is bottled water so popular? Many people like the convenience. Thanks to aggressive marketing, there’s also a widespread belief that bottled water is healthier or purer than tap water.

In fact, even though there have been outbreaks of waterborne diseases — such as infection by the parasite cryptosporidium that typically occur only after a flood — tap water generally is safe. City tap water is strictly regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Bottled water can be contaminated as well, despite the fact that it must meet Food and Drug Administration standards. One report found that 25 percent of more than 100 bottled water brands sold in the United States contained chemical contaminants above the limits set by California, the bottled water industry code or those of other states.

A problem of titanic proportions

What isn’t rare these days is plastic. According to the plastic industry group NAPCOR, in 2011 bottled water alone accounted for 650,000 tons of plastic. Less than half of that was recycled. The rest wound up in landfills and, increasingly, the deep blue sea.

According to a recent study in “Science,” oceans worldwide became host to 8 million tons of plastic from all sources 2010 alone. That number is expected to rise dramatically. It takes 450 years for one plastic water bottle to degrade, which means that unrecycled plastic is going to be around for a very long time. Meanwhile, the impact on marine life is unknown, but scientists agree plastic in the ocean is a giant problem.

Cutting back on bottled water

All of that plastic is extremely costly to make. Researchers at the Pacific Institute have estimated that the production of plastic for water bottles in the U.S. used the equivalent of 17 million barrels of oil. That was in 2006, when we were drinking far less bottled water than we are now. The institute also estimates that it takes two to three liters of water just to make a liter-sized water bottle.

Some people and institutions have made a real effort to cut back on bottled water. But simply banning water bottles doesn’t necessarily help. When the University of Vermont prohibited bottled water on campus in 2012, students simply drank more bottled soft drinks and other beverages. They ended up using just as much plastic as before, with quite a few added calories as a bonus.

Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, may have found a better solution. Students voted to end sales of bottled water in most stores on campus. To make things easier, all new students receive a reusable bottled that they can fill at “hydration stations” around campus.

Whats a thirsty person to do?

Ultimately, it’s up to individuals to make smart choices with beverages. Simply reusing plastic water bottles isn’t a great idea, though, because they can be hard to clean. A canteen or a sturdy reusable bottle made of stainless steel is an ideal alternative.

Worried about the quality of your tap water (or you just don’t like how it tastes)? A water filter is an easy fix. First check the website of your local water company. You can find information about contaminants there that will help you decide if you need a filter as well as which kind.

For most people, though, the easiest and cheapest way to get a water fix is to simply turn on the faucet and fill up a glass.

Related: 7 Signs You Need a Drink (of Water!)

Chris Woolston, M.S. is a freelance writer and editor who specializes in science, health and travel. A reformed biologist, Woolston says, he studied algae and nitrogen dynamics in Antarctic lakes before the Science Writing Program propelled him out of the lab. He is a contributing editor at, a former staff writer for Time Inc.’s Hippocrates magazine, and co-author of Generation Extra Large (Perseus). He lives in Billings, Mt., with his wife – novelist Blythe Woolston – and their two children.