Breaking the bottled water habit

G Magazine

Our bottled water addiction is bad for the planet. So how can we break the habit?

water bottles

Credit: iStockphoto

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You know that bottled water craze is in full swing when restaurants offer a separate water menu. On a recent dining experience, my eyes scanned past prices of $8, $9, $12 for a vessel of water from some of the world's highest, snowiest, or simply most exotic-sounding locales. I was rendered incapable of speech.

Turning on the tap at home for a late evening drink, I felt ripped off.

According to Clean Up Australia's figures, I was: if you spent $2.50 on a 600 mL bottle of water, and drank it, you could refill that bottle once a day for a staggering eight and a half years with tap water before it cost you $2.50.

I'm not the only one who has begun noticing that good old H2O has had an extreme makeover. Across the globe, populations are screwing up their noses at turning on the tap; we now prefer our water packaged, labelled, and most importantly, branded.

With annual global sales estimated at $60 billion worldwide ($385 million in Australia last year alone), the bottled water industry has been booming for the last 10 to 15 years. The modern boom seems to have begun in the 1970s and 1980s, a time when individuals became increasingly obsessed with their personal wellbeing.

According to a report by the UK's alliance for better food and farming, Sustain, global sales of bottled water increased by almost 250 per cent between 1994 and 2002.

We now have more than 30 brands easily available to most Australian consumers, we're deluged with choice, and there's scope for every one of us to become a bottled water connoisseur.

But before you lift your next bottle to your lips, it's worth unscrewing the lid on this modern mega industry: how does it affect our environment, our health, and our wallet?

Could oil and water actually mix?

While it's unlikely we kid ourselves bottled water is environmentally advantageous, most of us are still missing the connection between bottled water and two of today's biggest environmental concerns: oil and carbon emissions.

Typically, bottled water is sold in soft plastic PET bottles. PET stands for polyethylene terephthalate, and it's made from two main ingredients: PTA (terephthalic acid) and MEG (monoethylene glycol). Both are derived from crude oil.

Our current thirst for bottled water is leaving an undeniably oily footprint: the 250 million litres of bottled water drunk by Australians in 2006 took a whopping 456,131 barrels of oil to produce, and according to the Department of Environment and Climate Change, created 60,000 tonnes of greenhouse emissions through production and transportation.

Of course, the further your bottle travels, the bigger its environmental footprint. According to the Australasian Bottled Water Institute, around five per cent of Australia's bottled water comes from overseas.

But PET's recyclable, right?

Theoretically, PET is recyclable. But only 35 per cent of Australia's plastic water bottles are currently recycled, according to the Australian Conservation Foundation(ACF). The rest end up as landfill or litter.

Last year's Clean Up Australia campaign found 37,400 PET bottles in NSW alone, and noted this was a significant increase on previous years. According to Clean Up, South Australia's lower percentage of PET bottles was no coincidence: it is the only Australian state where consumers are able to return bottles for a small cash refund.

Watch your wallet

If there's one area where it's hard to argue any upside to bottled water, it must be price.

"Australians are keeping an eye on petrol prices, yet many fail to realise that they're spending even more on a litre of bottled water than a litre of petrol," said Clean Up Australia boss Ian Kiernan earlier this year.

If you turn on your kitchen tap and leave it running, and running, and running until you've chewed through 1,000 litres. Yes, 1,000 litres of water. The cost? A mere $1.30.

Now head to your local convenience store. Your $1.30 won't buy you even one bottle of the standard brand.
But isn't bottled water healthier?

Environmental and nutritional toxicologist, Peter Dingle, from Murdoch University in Perth, says it's important to be clear about what you mean by bottled water, when you're asking about the health impacts of water.

"There are two types. One is tap water that has been purified through carbon filters or reverse osmosis, and is sold on the market as purified bottled water. The other type is 'real' mineral water."

According to Dingle, purified tap water has its pros and cons. "Filtering might get rid of some of the toxins found in water, like organo-chlorides and fluoride. But you will take away some of the valuable nutrients too, like calcium and magnesium."

What Dingle calls "real mineral water" may have some health benefits. "Real mineral waters like Perrier or Hepburn Spa have a distinct health advantage, as they're quite rich in minerals that we often lose out of a diet high in processed foods."

But these real mineral waters makes up a very small percentage of the bottled water sold, says Dingle.
"Most bottled water sold doesn't have a mineral content worth mentioning. So despite the fact that we're buying water for health reasons, it probably really has no real health advantage."

Perhaps bottled is safer?

In addition to the uncertainty about potential health benefits, there's no guarantee that bottled water will not make your health worse. Overseas, Coca-Cola took a battering over the recall of its Dasani bottled water, after it was found to contain higher than expected levels of a chemical called bromate, which is suspected of causing cancer.

UK's Sustain, the USA's Polaris Institute, and author of Bottlemania Elizabeth Royte are just some who believe that the beverage industry's insistence that bottled is safer and cleaner simply erodes confidence in perfectly good public water systems.

ACF staffer Elle Morrell maintains Australia's water systems are reliable. "We have some of the best tap water in the world," she says."

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."

Gay Hawkins from the University of NSW's School of English, Media and Performing Arts says while the beverage companies are certainly engaging in aggressive marketing techniques, it takes two to tango.

"What the bottle companies are exploiting is a general concern about risk: is tap water safe, is bottled water healthier? Over the last 30 years the risk culture has really escalated: people now feel vulnerable about almost anything," she says.

Hawkins, who recently began a three-year international study looking at the link between bottles and taps, wonders what role bottled water will play in our future:

"Look around, everyone's carrying a bottle; it's an extraordinary transformation in the last 10 years. It says a lot about plastics, water futures, the legal rights surrounding access to water, and issues of health. That bottle stands for so many important questions around the politics of life."


But in the politics of bottled water, a backlash is starting to emerge.

Overseas utilities companies were amongst the first to fight back. In Paris, the city's water was re-branded as Eau de Paris, with restaurants given Pierre Cardin-designed carafes to entice Parisians back to tap. The campaign was so successful that London is now planning its own program, called London on Tap.

In the USA, many local governments are banning bottled water at official functions and in their offices: the movement, which began in San Francisco last year, has gained endorsement from mayors in New York, Seattle and cities across North America.

In Australia, the Department of Environment and Climate Change has stopped supplying bottled water in their 120 offices, the Victorian government is encouraging tap, and Manly Council has led others in NSW by banning the bottle in offices and at functions.

Some celebrities are even changing their tune: while Madonna once sent sales of Evian soaring by adopting it as her brand of preference today, Cindy Crawford more demurely endorses a water filtration company.

The response from beverage companies has been an increased focus on 'greening up' their public presence.

We're already seeing Landcare partner with Mount Franklin for tree planting; PepsiCo donate to Matt Damon's African clean water campaign in exchange for his endorsement of Starbucks' Ethos Water; and Fiji Water claims that drinking its product will help the environment because they offset more carbon than it takes to create the water. Expect it to escalate.

As they cry "greenwash alert", activists at sites such as www.bottledwateralliance.com, www.turntotap.com and www.insidethebottle.org are hoping that consumers see through the hype, and soon.

That way, the next time you're presented with a smorgasbord of bottled waters, you'll be confident enough to respond in the most rational, economical and environmentally sound manner:

"No, thanks, I'll take tap."