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What’s Wrong with the Tap? Examining Perceptions of Tap Water and Bottled Water at Purdue University


The environmental impacts of bottled water prompted us to explore drinking water choices at Purdue University, located in West Lafayette, IN. A random sample of 2,045 Purdue University students, staff, and faculty was invited to participate in an online survey. The survey assessed current behaviors as well as perceived barriers and benefits to drinking tap water versus bottled water. 677 surveys were completed for a response rate of 33.1%. We then conducted qualitative interviews with a purposive sample of university undergraduates (n = 21) to obtain contextual insights into the survey results and the beliefs of individuals with a variety of drinking water preferences. This study revealed that women drink disproportionately more bottled water then men while undergraduate students drink more than graduate students, staff and faculty. The study also uncovered a widespread belief that recycling eliminates the environmental impacts of bottled water. Important barriers to drinking tap water at Purdue include: perceived risks from tap water and the perceived safety of bottled water, preferring the taste of bottled water, and the convenience of drinking bottled water. The qualitative interviews revealed that drinking water choices can be influenced by several factors—especially whether individuals trust tap water to be clean—but involve varying levels of complexity. The implications of these results for social marketing strategies to promote tap water are discussed.

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We would like to thank Dr. Hyunyi Cho for her assistance and advice in planning this study. This research was funded by the Department of Forestry and Natural Resources at Purdue University.

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Correspondence to Linda Stalker Prokopy.

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Saylor, A., Prokopy, L.S. & Amberg, S. What’s Wrong with the Tap? Examining Perceptions of Tap Water and Bottled Water at Purdue University. Environmental Management 48, 588–601 (2011).

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  • Bottled water
  • Tap water
  • Social marketing
  • Risk perceptions