By Mara Werkman and Manon Stravens
Bottled water should primarily be produced to improve global access to clean drinking water in regions where tap water is not available. Instead, the shelves of supermarkets across the world are full of plastic bottles with drinking water being sold as a healthy alternative to tap water. As such, the global bottled water industry contributes to plastic pollution, waste of water, toxic air emissions, and the spreading of false health claims.
Coke or water?”
“Water is fine… Oh, but wait, what do I see? Do you only serve water from the tap? Then I’ll take a Coke instead. There is so much junk in tap water.”
Tap water is inferior to bottled water. That is what this joke of the famous Dutch comedian Theo Maassen in one of his recent shows is all about. Maassen is referring to the message that the bottled water sector is telling consumers in order to have them buy their bottled water.
Bottled water companies are frontrunners in telling consumers that bottled water is healthier than tap water. For example, Spa Reine wants pregnant women to believe that it is better to drink Spa Reine. It states: “During your pregnancy, it is better to limit the intake of nitrates. […] To be on the safe side, you can of course always opt for SPA® Reine, because with only 1.5 mg per liter this is one of the waters with the lowest nitrate content.” So according to Spa, if you want a healthy baby, drink Spa.
As a result, globally, supermarkets sell more and more plastic bottles with drinking water, promoting it as a healthy alternative to tap water. According to a recent UN report on the global bottled water sector, every minute, more than one million bottles of water are sold worldwide. In 2021, 350 billion liters of water were sold globally for almost 270 billion US dollars. Global sales are expected to nearly double in 2030. And as the bottled water sector saw a 73% increase in sales between 2010 and 2020, this sector has become one of the fastest‑growing markets in the world. People lift themselves a fracture, carrying all these bottles that may be more than 350 times as expensive as water from the tap.
Hidden hazards of bottled water
The health claims of bottled water companies are misleading. Drinking water from the tap, at least in most high-income countries, is healthy as its provision is strictly regulated and frequently tested. In the Netherlands, water companies need to make sure that tap water complies with statutory quality requirements that have been laid down for approximately 30 chemical substances and groups of substances. In fact, according to the UN report, public tap water is generally checked more often on more chemical materials than bottled water. It states: “Strict water quality standards for tap water are rarely applied to bottled water and even if such analyses are carried out, the results seldom make it to the public domain.”
Water bottles can create health issues, both for consumers and for the communities living near production facilities. The UN report documents cases of bottled water contamination with, among others, microplastics, plasticizers, salmonella, and a variety of chemicals. To what level this raises serious health concerns, needs to be further investigated, especially now that more and more bottled water is sold. However, the conclusions of another recent report, describing the chemical footprint of a plastic bottle, are much more firm. It not only reveals the potential hidden hazards of plastic bottles for human health, but also for the environment. It states that “all along its chemical supply chain, PET plastic pollutes air, water, and food with cancer-causing chemicals.” For example, antimony, a chemical used to speed up plastic production, could migrate out of PET plastic bottles. It can cause cancer and is toxic to the liver, thyroid, and heart. Furthermore, discharges from PET plastic production polluted drinking water sources in the Southeast US with the cancer-causing 1,4-dioxane.
Plastic pollution and waste of water
The bottled water industry not only contributes to spreading misleading health messages, it also causes plastic pollution. The annual average volume of discharged PET water bottles over the past two decades amounted to around 18 million tonnes. The volume of this waste stream only increases, with already more than 25 million tonnes in 2021. Some bottles may be recycled, but most bottles end up being landfilled anyway. An estimated 30% of the globally produced PET bottles that end up as waste, are water bottles.
Like many other industries, bottled water is a consumer of huge amounts of water. Every day, bottled water companies extract millions of liters of ground- and surface water from rivers, springs, lakes, and reservoirs to use the water in their production processes of bottled water. While exact volumes are unknown, it has been estimated that Coca‑Cola uses 1.95 liters of water on average to produce one liter of its final product, Unilever 3.3 liters, and Nestlé 4.1 liters. This can be hardly explained in times of extreme drought and increasing reported water shortages.
In addition, the extraction of water may also create conflicts between the bottled water companies and farmers, as has been the case in Nepal or Pakistan, where bottled water companies did not consider the needs of farmers who use water for drinking or agriculture. In the United States, Nestlé’s bottling water activities in Strawberry Creek impacted local communities as creek beds in the area are drying up. There are cases of companies having established bottled water plants where people are already facing a shortage of drinking water, or paying very little to the local government for using the water from the area. To summarize, local communities often do not profit from the bottled water industry, but they come off rather badly.
Two billion people
Of course, providing bottled water may be the most appropriate solution in certain cases, especially in regions where clean tap water is absent or scarce. This can be due to a lack of infrastructure, for example, caused by natural disasters or manmade disasters like warfare. Still around 26% of the global population, which is equivalent to two billion people, does not have access to safely managed drinking water services. Among them, 771 million people, most of whom are living in Sub-Saharan Africa, cannot even access basic drinking water services.
But also governments in low- and middle-income countries can be held accountable for the use of bottled water. The UN report on bottled water states that “the increase in the consumption of bottled water is motivated by the poor quality of safe drinking water which can be seen as a proxy indicator of the failure of public water supply systems. The weak governmental commitment to deliver safe drinking water is an unfortunate outcome of the decades of limited progress with a public water supply and its many failures.”
Governments should, first of all, make sure their tap water supply is safe and adequate, and reduce the need to use plastic bottles. They should promote tap water and thus fend off the false claims of the bottled water industry, stating that bottled water would be safer and healthier. The growth of the bottled water industry should urge governments to impose stricter regulations on the sector, in particular on the quality of bottled water, but also related to groundwater management to halt resource depletion. And finally, in order to reduce the plastic soup, governments should regulate the use of plastic bottles, and establish or improve collection, recycling and reuse systems.
The bottled water industry itself and its investors should first of all make sure their bottled water is safe, globally reducing the incidents with water contamination. They should also be more transparent about the water volumes they use, the environmental and social impacts of their production processes and the way they safeguard water quality. Companies should ensure they reduce their negative impacts and step up efforts to preserve the environment and reduce the production of single-use plastics by developing reuse models. Last but not least, they should stop spreading messages that might refrain consumers from drinking tap water.
And the consumers? They could boycott single-use plastic bottles. Put pressure on governments and companies to install water taps where there are none. And, ironically, drink water. Tap water, that is.
(Photo: Jonathan Chng on Unsplash)