By Biksham Gujja, Richard Holland and Catherine Ferrier
Summary: As the bottled water industry gathers for the annual IBWA show in Florida this month, there will undoubtedly be some talk on how people from around the globe view the industry. One such group with its distinct opinions is the World Wildlife Fund. The following article is largely based on a study conducted by WWF earlier this year. It in no way should be construed as representing the views of WC&P’s publisher.
Everyone needs to drink water every day. It’s an essential human necessity and is being recognized increasingly as a fundamental right as well. Still, more than a billion people mostly in developing countries either don’t have access to safe water, or suffer from unpredictable periods without supply. Despite technological advances and mostly rising income levels, a crisis of fresh water is the daily reality in too many cases. Even in industrialized countries, public perception of rivers and lakes choked with pollution means that confidence in drinking from the tap has been seriously undermined.
Every cloud has a silver lining, though, at least in terms of new products and profits. Water sold in bottles has become an iconic symbol of modern life. Ten years ago, the sale of bottled water was minimal. Today, 90 billion liters (23.8 billion gallons) are bought annually representing $22 billion in sales.
Many bottled water brands base their publicity on the supposed purity of their product, quality of their source or additional properties otherwise not available with tap water. Water, whether available in bottles or from the tap, always contains a certain amount of minerals and trace elements, collected throughout its geological course. The mineral composition of each water depends on the geological layers crossed and time spent in the ground. These inorganic elements and their interaction are essential to the constitution of the human body and maintaining health. Some of these elements have to be present at certain concentrations. Fluoride helps to prevent tooth decay; the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends adding fluoride to municipal water where concentrations are below 1 ppm.* For example, fluoride has to be present at about 1 to 1.5 parts per million (ppm) in drinking water—less or more than that can lead to health problems.
Minerals are composed of electrolytes: anions (chloride, bicarbonate, phosphorous, sulphur, organic acids, proteins) and cations (sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium). For instance, sulphates are important for digestion; calcium is essential to strengthening teeth and bones; and phosphorous is necessary to the assimilation of calcium and contributes to brain activity and teeth protection. Trace elements of metals and metalloids in very small amounts in the human body participate in most of its biochemical reactions. Iron, fluorine, selenium, silicon and vanadium are the main trace elements found in waters, but some waters can also contain iodine, zinc, copper or silver.
To put figures in perspective, the total volume of water consumed in the world (90 billion liters) is about the volume of water the Indian capital of Delhi (population 12 million) consumes in two months. The amount of money spent on bottled water per year ($22 billion) would enable enough water to be supplied through municipal systems to 2,000 cities each with a population of 4 million. Today, the total investment in tap water supply and sewage treatment worldwide is only a few times greater than the annual global figure for bottled water sales.
The phenomenal growth of bottled water sales is by no means limited to the industrialized world. The Indian bottled water industry is estimated to be growing at 30-50 percent a year. In China, one brand sells about 836 million liters (221 million gallons) and has a turnover of $375 million. The industry is growing 15 percent annually in Asia and 10 percent in North America (see Figure 1).
In many cases, public confidence in tap water has eroded due to images of polluted rivers, lakes and underground water sources. Lack of environmental protection and weak enforcement of regulations are partly to blame. There are, of course, issues of health and taste that are also important, especially in industrialized countries (see Figure 2). Although these factors may encourage people to seek other sources of water, about half of all bottled water is little more than tap water—albeit re-filtered—delivered in bottles instead of pipes.
Can bottled water be a long-term solution for water supply? The answer is simply no. Even in developed countries, not everyone can afford to drink it on a daily basis. There’s only one long-term solution to improve water quality at the tap and restoring public confidence. Treating the wastewater discharged into rivers, lakes and wetlands is that solution. Even bottled water quality very much depends on this, since nature is its source.
To serve and protect
The increasing popularity of bottled water may seem to support the argument that tap water is often undrinkable. This sends the wrong message, however, concerning the priority we should give to protecting and improving our rivers, lakes and underground sources—the natural ecosystems—that are the source for all water… whether it comes to us in a bottle or through a pipe. If wealthier people are able to opt out of using tap water by buying bottled water, then this means—as successively fewer people use tap water for drinking—that pressure on towns, cities and countries to invest in environmental protection and public water systems will be lower. And ultimately all water sources will become degraded.
Bottled water also suffers from problems, just like tap water. In developing countries, for example, the same weaknesses concerning poor enforcement of environmental and hygiene standards apply equally to tap water and bottled water. In other countries, labelling standards may allow misinformation being passed to consumers.
One bottled water website states: “Remember how fresh the air smells after a storm? Basically, we run our water through a lightning storm for you to provide a fresh, clean taste. In addition to this, the average TDS (total dissolved solids) is 300 parts per million (ppm), but our water has only 15 ppm, and is six times purer than the purest water in the world.” This brand in the United States costs $1.50 per liter—three times as expensive as gasoline—but its consumers aren’t told that such low levels of TDS in drinking water could actually be harmful.*
Effects on environment
Not only do such bottled water products drain your pocket of money, the industry contributes to degradation of the environment by consuming plastic. Currently, 1.5 million tons of plastic are used annually for these bottles. This will increase further. Total plastic consumption increased globally from 1.6 million tons in 1950 to 135 million tons in 2000. There are some efforts to recycle but, in many developing countries, the bottles end up on the beach, or countryside streets. In India, plastic consumption has doubled in the last three years to 4 kilograms (8.82 pounds) per capita annually. The bottled water industry then inevitably contributes to the increase in plastic—as well as glass and aluminium—used and resulting waste generated (see Figure 3).
Water in the bottle is only worth a few cents, if that. What consumers are really paying for are plastic bottles, transportation, packaging and marketing, which accounts for about 90 percent of the price. Some brands transport bottled water long distances to other countries. Around 25 percent of all bottled water crosses an international border before it’s consumed. Transportation of bottled water long distances involves consumption of fossil fuels, which adds to consumption of fossil fuels, contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and, ultimately, affects climate change.
Having said this, it should also be recognized that bottled water does have beneficial roles to play in society. It has a crucial role during emergencies caused for example by earthquakes, floods and other natural disaster or pollution accidents. Bottled water also represents a healthy, no-calorie alternative to soft drinks. Individuals may also opt for it when they’re travelling for convenience reasons or if they’re unsure of local water quality. In addition, the bottled water industry has taken positive steps to reduce its ecological footprint. Recycling and reusing bottles is increasing, larger containers, home delivery and local water sources could all reduce packaging waste and transport costs. Persuading all the companies in the sector to match the best practices of the leaders is a challenge ahead for the industry.
But is this the best way of meeting drinking water needs for everyone? Obviously not. It’s both cheaper and more sustainable to keep rivers, lakes and underground water sources clean and to use these for public tap water supplies. New York City, for example, has started a major program to secure protection of its water sources far upstream of where it’s consumed by city dwellers.
But with more people turning to bottled water, such watershed management projects may look unnecessary and expensive to decision-makers trying to keep costs down (or people who aren’t actually using the water for drinking). There’s no point in taking such measures to protect water in nature if people are drinking bottled water! As an industry representative (IBWA’s Stephen Kay, The Nando Times, May 3, 2001) observed, “Bottled water is not the problem,* the industry is only responding to it.” But this is a temporary and expensive fix and it may delay the tough decisions required to reach a permanent solution.
Consumers, governments and the private sector need to work together to ensure that tap water is available, safe to drink and tastes better. That requires a commitment to the environment and investment in infrastructure equal to the public’s desire for clean and healthy water. Bottled brands may be designer products, but the water inside the bottle still comes from nature. Protecting and restoring freshwater ecosystems is the only solution that’s sustainable in the long term. And it should be cheaper for everyone, too.
* It’s the position of WC&P that drinking water shouldn’t be relied upon as the source of essential vitamins and minerals that the body needs. As mentioned in earlier related articles, the body gets these largely from the foods we eat. If a person’s diet is low in certain of these, supplements are recommended. To rely on water for the federal Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA), however, would mean drinking thousands of eight-ounce glasses of water a day. Although proper hydration is essential to good health, this is impractical and unnecessary—The Editors.
About the authors
Biksham Gujja and Richard Holland work for the WWF’s Living Waters Program. WWF (World Wildlife Fund) is the largest independent environmental non-governmental organization working to conserve biodiversity and to promote sustainable use of natural resources.
Catherine Ferrier is an independent researcher based at the University of Geneva who was commissioned by WWF to conduct a study, “Bottled Water: Understanding a Social Phenomenon,” that was published on May 3, 2001, and generated reports in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and International Herald Tribune as well as ABC’s Good Morning America.