About ten days ago, I had a water chat with Tom Lauria, the head of outreach at International Bottled Water Association (IBWA). US bottled water sales are worth $11 billion. IBWA has 300 members, many of them small. Coke and Nestle belong, but not Pepsi. 40% of the water is purified from municipal tap water; 60% comes from spring water. (Jennifer Aniston's water comes from unicorn tears...)
Here's our fifty minute talk [24 MB mp3]. We did it on skype -- Tom is in Virginia -- so it's a bit clunky at the start.
In it, we discussed Peter Gleick's story of how a stadium denied tap water to its captive audience to make money (something I said awhile ago about airports), and we agreed that bottled water was not the problem.
We talked about the difference between deposits on bottles and curbside recycling. Plastic water bottles take less energy to ship than glass, and they are more-recycled than other plastic products, but there is still a problem with pollution. (I favor semi-refunded deposits, with some money kept back for reprocessing the plastic into something useful.)
We also talked about the water quality issue -- bottled water is regulated by the USDA; tap water by the EPA. I've said before that they should be regulated by one agency and compared with one measuring stick, but they are not. The regulatory turf battle means that a lot of activists (on both sides) claim that they are under stricter control. The GAO compared the two and found that "FDA Safety and Consumer Protections Are Often Less Stringent Than Comparable EPA Protections for Tap Water" [pdf]
Bottom Line: Companies sell bottled water to customers who want to buy it. It's important to keep track of where the bottles go afterwards, but not much else.