Drinking bottled water has environmental price tag

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 September, 2007, 12:00am

There was a time when everyone in Hong Kong took drinking water from the tap. Now bottled water is the preferred choice of many. Tap water is practically free. This raises the question of why people are prepared to pay for something that can be had for nothing.

People rationalise, usually after the fact. Some say mineral water is good for your health, that distilled water is cleaner than tap, and that it's just more convenient to buy it off the shelf than having to boil it and bottle it yourself. Yet the health benefits are unproven, and supplies of bottled water have sometimes been found to be tainted with high levels of contaminants. This has even occurred with some famous brands from overseas.

While it may be true that water quality leaves a lot to be desired in many places in Asia, including on the mainland, it is generally high and reliable in Hong Kong. Certainly, the government has a responsibility to ensure that water quality remains high - and to get that message across. Those who prefer bottled water, however, will take some convincing.

It is hard to dispute the convenience that bottled water provides. Waiting for boiled water to cool before pouring it into a water bottle does not sit well with the get-up-and-go mentality of many Hong Kong people. They have also become increasingly affluent at a time when many overseas water brands, through clever marketing, are selling their products as a lifestyle choice.

Consumerism, after all, is all about making people buy what they don't really need. The power of branding and the feel-good association it conjures up is what makes the customer come back again and again. So it is with bottled water that carries a well-known label. As we report in today's newspaper, the city's imports of bottled mineral water jumped by almost 50 per cent in seven years to 24.96 million litres last year, worth a staggering HK$127.4 million. In this, we merely follow a worldwide trend.

But this is only the import price tag. We are not counting the environmental costs, and the carbon footprints, that this massive amount of imported water leaves behind. It takes an enormous amount of fuel and energy to transport brand-name bottled water when so many people stop drinking from local sources. Landfills are loaded up with discarded bottles.

In a free market, people are entitled to buy what they want, whether for fashion or convenience. But when they do, they should be aware of the environmental cost.