Finance

5 Budget-Friendly Alternatives to Plastic Bottles

Our health relies on staying hydrated. Both mental and physical functioning can be harmed by dehydration. Grabbing the occasional bottle of water at a convenience store is a small price to pay to avoid passing out during a long hike or a spirited game of outdoor volleyball in 93-degree weather.

But it’s regularly buying bottled water that really adds up.

A 12-ounce bottle of still water can run you anywhere from 99 cents at a grocery store to $2.00 or more at a gas station or convenience store. A 12-pack of store brand water is more economical, running around $3.80.

And that’s just for plain water. Fancy water with added nutrients, flavoring and bubbles costs even more.

Bottled Water: Why Not Just Pour Money Down the Drain?

Americans are clearly dedicated to hydration. We drink water like it’s our job.

In fact, Americans drink an average 47 gallons of bottled water per person each year.

That’s a lot of plastic water bottles, and it has a pretty terrible impact on the environment. There are also health concerns about single use plastic bottles, since they are manufactured with phthalates. There is growing research about how these chemicals affect people.

But for now, let’s look at the impact on our wallets.

Reusable Bottle Options

The obvious solution to disposable water bottles is to get your hands on refillable water bottles and fill them up yourself. Keep one at home, one at work and one in the car.

With over 100,000,000 plastic bottles used every day around the world, using a reusable bottle is better for your wallet, health, and the environment.

What should you look for when buying a reusable bottle or three? It depends on your lifestyle and budget. Most reusable bottles are made from metal, glass, or plastic. There are metal/bamboo and ceramic ones too. It’s important that you wash out your reusable bottle regularly so mildew or mold doesn’t appear.

Before buying a reusable bottle, do a quick check on your habits to make sure you buy a bottle that you’ll actually use. Do you want one with a built-in straw? Is it something you might clip onto a bike or backpack, and so needs a handle or loop? If you put ice into your drinks, you might want to get a bottle with a wide mouth. If it is easy for you to refill, then look at smaller sizes. If you are on the road or water isn’t easily available, a larger one will work best.

When it comes to reusable bottles, you’ve got a few options.

Glass

Glass bottles are best if you want your water (or whichever liquid) to not be contaminated by other flavors or chemicals. There are shatter resistant reusable glass bottles available (which might be a pain to recycle, since they are made differently from regular glass). Glass bottles usually come with a protective sleeve.

There are both insulated and uninsulated glass bottles. These bottles are a little heavier but keep the taste pure.

Metal

Metal reusable bottles are usually made with stainless steel or aluminum, both relatively light and safe metals. Metal bottles are generally very durable, though stainless steel is stronger than aluminum.

Aluminum is lighter, but also more likely to have a metallic taste leech into the liquid. There may also initially be a metallic taste with stainless steel, but washing it frequently reduces that. Check to make sure that if the metal bottle is lined with plastic that the plastic is BPA free.

Pro Tip

If keeping your drink at a certain temperature, whether cold or hot, is important, make sure you have a vacuum-insulated bottle. That means the space between two insulating panels has been sealed.

Plastic

Plastic is the most common, and usually the least expensive, reusable bottle. These come in all sizes, and it is possible to fold some up to keep in your glove compartment, desk drawer, or backpack until needed. Plastic reusable bottles are usually the lightest version, even when insulated. They are made with the most variety, and often are the least expensive option.

It is important to make sure your plastic bottle was not manufactured with the chemical BPA (Bisphenol A). The easiest way to do this is to look at the bottle recycling information on the bottom. Don’t buy it if it has a 3 or 7 recycling code. Also look for the BPA-free insignia.

How Much Do These Bottles Cost?

The cost of your reusable bottle varies greatly.

Pricy but Durable

Sure you can spend $99 on a water bottle. If you are thinking that it better have its own filtration and cleaning system for that price, you would be right. That might make the $45 bottle look good. These seem to be geared toward the backcountry travelers who might need to filter water while on the trail.

Mid-Range Price with Extra Features 

These aren’t the cheapest choices, but they can fit what exactly you want in your bottle. They do come equipped with neat extras like a storage compartment for snacks, fruit infuser, or (inexplicably) a wireless speaker.

Refillable water bottles at this price point are perfect for someone who has some extra dollars to spend on features that aren’t strictly necessary but make chugging water all day a little less boring. You might find the perfect bottle within the $12-25 price range.

Basic but Cheap

You’ll find plenty of reusable for just a few dollars if you’re willing to forgo all the bells and whistles. Discount department stores like TJ Maxx always have shelves full of bottles. Dollar and thrift stores usually have cheap reusable bottles for under $5.

Free

We love free. Often reusable bottles are branded items given away at events. Grab one! Consider reusing glass jars after a good washing (it would look weird to be chugging them if the marinara label was still on). You can also rinse out that togo coffee cup and fill that in a pinch.

You might think it’s a good idea to reuse an empty bottle from single-use bottled water you already bought. Unfortunately it isn’t. The chemicals in the bottle begin to break down after a few uses.

Tap Water vs. Filtered Water

Some people rely on water bottles to quench their thirst when they’re at work or on the go. But others buy bottled water to drink at home because they can’t or won’t drink tap water.

There is no research showing bottled water is healthier or safer than tap water (unless you’re under a boil water notice). The government’s bottled water regulations ensure safety, but not flavor. However, some places have water with a distinctive taste. Or you might live in a house with old pipes, and can taste the metal when you drink.

People can also be sensitive to hard or soft water. If you live in a place with hard water — water with a high mineral count — and use a water softener, you might still want a water filter to improve the flavor. Hard water has more minerals because it has seeped through the ground. Soft water lacks minerals like calcium and magnesium, and tends to have more sodium or salt.

But there are ways you can filter tap water, then use it to fill your reusable bottle.

Tap Water Filtration Options

Bring on the math. For each option, we considered:

  • The equipment cost of each system divided to equal a month’s use;
  • The daily cost to drink 64 ounces of water per day using each system. While this amount really reflects water obtained through food and other drinks besides water, it’s a good baseline for our calculations;
  • The price of tap water. According to groundwatergovernance.org, the average price of tap water in the US is 4 cents a gallon. This fluctuates widely but is the amount we will use to calculate costs.

We also figured out how many dollar bottles of water you’d have to avoid drinking to break even on your investment using each system.

Bottled water is sold in a wide variety of sizes, packaging and price points. To arrive at a happy medium somewhere between volume-discounted multi-bottle flats of water and expensive premium single-serving sizes, our formulas used a 12-ounce bottle of water costing one dollar for the calculations, which works out to $5.31 per day.

The graphic displays the average price per day for different alternatives to bottled water. Water pitcer filters is 26 cents per day, countertop water filters is 37 cents per day, faucet water filters is 19 cents per day, refillable jugs is 53 cents per day, water delivery service is $1.25 per day.

Pitcher Water Filters

Pitcher water filters are super easy to use. Just fill the pitcher by pouring tap water through the filter built into its lid, and refill as needed.

Cost of equipment: $25 for the pitcher system, $18.25 for six months of replacement filters (each lasts about two months).

Cost per day: 26 cents

How many dollar bottles of water to break even?  35

Countertop Water Filters

Countertop water filters sit next to your sink and filter water from the tap to dispense directly from the appliance.

Cost of equipment: $60 for the filter system, $25 for a three-pack of replacement filters that last about three months each

Cost per day: 37 cents

How many 99-cent bottles of water to break even? 85

Faucet Water Filters

Faucet water filters attach to your kitchen sink faucet to automatically filter water flowing through the tap.

Cost of equipment: $30 (and up) for the filter system, which comes with 6 months of filters.

Cost per day: 19 cents

How many 99-cent bottles of water to break even? 30

Refillable Jugs (5 Gallon)

Many grocery, big box and home improvement stores sell refillable plastic five-gallon jugs of water. Just tote the empties back to the store, refill them at the water kiosk and take them back home.

Cost of equipment: $15 per bottle and $8 to refill (local Publix), $9 for a hand press pump (and transportation costs).

Cost per day: 53 cents

How many 99-cent bottles of water to break even? 32

Water Delivery Service

Alternatively, you can have refillable five-gallon jugs delivered right to your door. The delivery company even drops off replacements when your bottles run dry.

Cost of equipment: 15 gallons of filtered water delivered with a dispenser averages $45 a month, according to the website Fixr.

Cost per day: $1.23

How many 99-cent bottles of water to break even? 17

It’s worth noting reverse osmosis water systems and whole house filters are two other ways to always have tasty water available at home. However, they also come with hefty installation bills unless you’re a skilled DIYer.

Lisa McGreevy is a former staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. Freelancer JoEllen Schilke contributed to this report. 


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