How A Gen Z Habit Could Help Save the Public Water Supply

Closeup of a drinking fountain that also includes a water-bottle refilling station.
Photo by Wirestock/iStock

If you've spent any time on social media recently, you may have seen a much-coveted cup () cross your timeline. While on the surface, watching Zoomers and other TikTokers line up at Target stores to score a tumbler may seem like just the latest internet fad, there is a serious connection to note: More and more people — especially young people — are opting for refillable water bottles over single-use plastic. 

For Daniel Jaffee, an Associate Professor of Sociology at ˮ State University, this trend represents a ray of hope. 

Jaffee's latest book, , was published in late 2023 by University of California Press. It offers a comprehensive look at the environmental and social impacts of the rapid growth of bottled water — which is the most-consumed packaged beverage in the U.S. and worldwide, with Americans guzzling an average of 47 gallons per person per year. From human-caused disasters of unsafe tap water in cities such as Flint, Michigan, and Jackson, Mississippi, to encroachments by large bottling corporations on local water supplies, to the considerable contribution of bottled water to the global plastic pollution crisis (plastic beverage bottles and their caps are the number one garbage item in the oceans, and bottled water represents the largest share of that waste), the book offers an unflinching overview of a fast-growing set of problems. Yet while these problems may seem intractable, Jaffee argues they aren’t. 

"One of the surprises for me in the research for this book was that I ended up becoming more hopeful as I went along. We're faced with so much negative news on the environmental front that it can be a cause for despondency. But documenting the impact and the successes of the movements that are challenging the growth of bottled and packaged water caused me to feel optimistic," Jaffee says. 

In the fourth chapter of Unbottled, titled "Reclaiming the Tap," Jaffee traces the history of social and ecological activism against bottled water in North America, and then examines the pushback against packaged water from the consumer side, "a constellation of campaigns by city governments, public and private institutions, university students, community organizations, consumer and environmental NGOs, and others."

Those local governments and institutions are both passing policies to ban sales and purchases of single-use bottled water, and simultaneously investing in expanding tap water infrastructure—networks of shiny new water fountains and bottle refilling stations — to increase access to, and consumption of, public tap water. These efforts are connected by phone apps like , which helps users find over 300,000 free refilling points worldwide, and international initiatives such as the Աٷɴǰ.

Jaffee says that roughly 60 percent of U.S. households now own refillable water bottles, and that in recent years people have increasingly turned away from plastic bottled water — especially Generation Z. He adds that opposition to bottled water is increasingly fusing with concern about single-use plastics overall, and with movements around climate change and climate justice. 

All of this refilling activity is making a dent in demand for bottled water. "In 2022, after years of rapid growth, bottled water sales in the U.S. actually dropped by one percent,” says Jaffee. “That was only the third year in history in which sales have ever fallen, and the only year when we weren't in a recession.” He says market reports show the beverage industry is aware that flagging bottled water sales are due at least partly to the youth-led shift away from single-use plastic bottles and back to tap water, and it views these trends as cause for alarm. 

However, not all communities have the privilege of turning back to the tap with complete confidence. Jaffee says that while the vast majority of public tap water in the U.S. meets all federal safety standards, about 7 to 8 percent of water systems in the U.S. experience at least one health-related violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act in any given year. Those problems, he notes, are not evenly distributed: they overwhelmingly occur in low-income and predominantly Black and Latino/a communities. It is these communities who express the greatest concern about the safety of their tap water and spend the most money to purchase bottled water, despite on average being least able to afford the higher cost. For this reason, Jaffee argues that long-term dependence on bottled water widens social inequality, and is an indicator of “water injustice.” 

What is causing this uneven deterioration of public water infrastructure? As Jaffee outlines in a recent piece in The Conversation, federal spending on public water infrastructure fell by 77% in inflation-adjusted terms between 1977 and 2017. This has pushed the burden of maintaining water systems onto cities and states, leading to delayed maintenance, aging pipes, and rapidly rising water (and sewer) bills. 

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"We, as ratepayers, are having to make up for what the federal government is no longer covering," Jaffee said. He argues that only by dramatically increasing federal funding to rebuild and repair neglected public water infrastructure across the board — taking pressure off of local water utilities — can trust in tap water be restored to the point where turning away from bottled water represents a viable, obvious and appealing option for everyone. 

There’s a lot each of us can personally do to get there: First, people can put pressure on their federal representatives to support proposed federal legislation like to significantly increase funding for restoring and maintaining our public water infrastructure. We can avoid using single-use plastic water bottles, encourage our local political leaders to join the “reclaim the tap” movement by ending public purchases of plastic bottled water and investing in refilling stations, and join the growing refilling push: a network of tens of thousands of public and private institutions and businesses that will gladly refill personal water bottles for free. It turns out that Stanley cup is not just a TikTok trend after all — as long as you don’t get one to match every outfit. 

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