Feature

Breaking the bottled water habit

water bottles

Credit: iStockphoto

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The perils of plastic

As with all products packaged in plastic, there's debate over whether chemicals leach into the product itself. When it comes to water, the chemicals most publicised are BPA (bisphenol A) and phthalates.

BPAs, found in hard plastic bottles, like the ones you buy in camping stores, have been labelled as potentially harmful by the US National Toxicology Program and Health Canada.

Investigations into BPAs and plastics are one reason you now see some suppliers of hard water bottles touting their products' BPA-free status.

Phthalates are suspected of disrupting the endocrine system in the human body, and have been linked by some studies in animals to birth defects and the early onset of puberty. Whether phthalates leak into the water in your PET bottle is a matter of opinion.

Most experts agree a single use is OK (for you - not the environment!), but if you're re-using your bottle until it becomes old and worn, the jury is still out.

Perhaps bottled tastes better?

But at least bottled water tastes better, right? Not so, says almost every taste test you can get your hands on.

While many consumers claim to prefer the taste of bottle to tap, results of taste tests indicate it may be the marketing that sways us. In 2005 the Australian Consumers' Association ran a taste test of Mount Franklin, Frantelle and Sydney tap water. Tasters couldn't tell the difference, and it's a similar story in tests across the globe.

So if, with few exceptions, it's not healthier or safer, is environmentally unsound, costs a bomb, and tastes basically the same, why exactly are we buying bottled water?

It's all in the brand

Posing the question to authors, environmentalists, and researchers elicits the same response: marketing.

In Bottlemania, Elizabeth Royte suggests that the success of the bottled water industry is one of the greatest marketing coups of the 20th and 21st centuries, with companies such as Coca-Cola Amatil, PepsiCo, Cadbury Schweppes and Nestlé selling dozens of brands of bottled water across the globe.

Tap water, on the other hand, has no 'label' attached, and this brandless-ness leads people to devalue it, suggests Deakin University marketing lecturer Paul Harrison.

"Water from your own tap just doesn't have branding attached, and any pricing is a bit distant," he says.

"It's not just about buying water now, it's about buying a particular type of water: one company may have four or five different brands, and somehow convince us they are somehow different from one another."

Coca-Cola Amatil is one case in point. As well as producing Australia's highest selling retail bottled water (Mount Franklin) they sell Neverfail, the highest selling 'office' based water product, Pump (with a 'sports' look), and Peats Ridge water, among others.

For years we've used brands to 'say' something about the type of person we are, and bottled water is no different, says Harrison:

"We're not as rational - or as resistant - as we'd like to think. Most of the time when you question people why they buy bottled water, they say something like 'convenience', but really, it's become a social norm to have a bottle of water with you that sends a particular signal out to a social group."

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