Rise of the bottled water industry is a disaster for the environment and the world's poor

Brahma Chellaney says the growing industry depletes our natural resources, adds waste and pollution, and is no better than clean tap water

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 September, 2015, 10:37am
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 September, 2015, 10:37am

Bottled water is the largest growth area in the beverage industry, even in cities where tap water is safe. This has been a disaster for the environment and the poor.

The bulk of bottled water sold worldwide is drawn from the subterranean water reserves of aquifers and springs, many of which feed rivers and lakes. Tapping such reserves can aggravate drought conditions. Bottling the run-off from glaciers is not much better, as it diverts that water from ecosystem services like recharging wetlands and sustaining biodiversity.

Much of today's bottled water, however, is processed water, which is municipal water or, more often, directly extracted groundwater that has undergone purification treatments. Not surprisingly, bottlers have been embroiled in disputes with local authorities and citizens' groups over their role in water depletion.

Worse, processing, bottling and shipping the water is highly resource-intensive. It takes 1.6 litres of water, on average, to package one litre of bottled water. And processing and transport add a significant carbon footprint.

The health and safety benefits are little more than a marketing ploy. Indeed, tap water is often healthier than bottled water

The problems do not stop when the water reaches the consumer. The industry depends mainly on single-serve bottles made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET), the raw materials for which are derived from crude oil and natural gas. PET does not decompose; and, while it can be recycled, it usually is not. As a result, bottled water is now the single biggest source of plastic waste, with tens of billions of bottles ending up as garbage every year.

Of course, higher rates of recycling could improve this situation. But recycling entails the use of even more resources.

Some might argue that the safety and health benefits of bottled water offset these environmental consequences. But those benefits are little more than a marketing ploy. Indeed, tap water is often healthier than bottled water.

There are also health concerns over the potential leaching of chemical compounds from PET bottles, as well as from the large reusable polycarbonate containers in which bottlers deliver water to homes and offices.

These consequences are not going unnoticed. In the US, environmental concerns have prompted some university campuses and at least 18 national parks to ban the sale of bottled water. The bottled-water industry is doing everything possible to keep public opinion on its side.

But make no mistake: Bottled water is compounding the world's environmental challenges. It is making it harder to deliver potable water to the poor. It delivers no health benefits over tap water. And it does not even taste better.

Brahma Chellaney is professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research. Copyright: Project Syndicate