Stop before you gulp

Andrea Zavadszky
Andrea Zavadszky |

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In the second of our four-part series on bottled water, Andrea Zavadszky finds out about its real costs

The office water cooler has become an institution, filling the same role as the village square in the olden days. We stand there exchanging gossip as we sip refreshing cold water or make hot tea. At other times, we grab a bottle in the shops before we go on a hike or while we run errands in town.

It may well be handy, but just how much are we paying for the convenience of having our water distilled, filtered, disinfected and bottled or transported from the other side of the world, especially when we have clean water on tap?

According to non-partisan researchers at the Pacific Institute, it takes 7 litres of water to produce just under 4 litres of bottled water. They also estimate that water bottle production consumes 17 million barrels of oil a year, not including transportation and cooling. If making one tonne of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles produces three tones of CO2, the environmental cost comes to about 2.5 million tonnes of CO2 a year.

Bottled water represents about one-third of the US$400 billion global water business and is growing fast. Global consumption is estimated to have approached 200 billion litres in 2008, according to the latest data from the Beverage Marketing Corporation's The Global Bottled Water Market.

Its editorial director John Rodwan said the global rate of consumption rose by 5.6 per cent in 2008, while the per capita consumption of 29.9 litres represented a gain of almost 7.6 litres over the course of five years.

Bottled water seldom reaches the developing parts of the world where it is really needed, however. About 886 million people lack safe drinking water, and diseases caused by water and sanitation problems claim more lives than wars.

Most of the production goes to markets such as the US and Europe, where the tap water is already clean and highly regulated.

Even worse, economic gains do not always trickle down to the larger community in established water-producing areas and the local population may well lack clean water while providing the same for rich nations.

For example, although in Fiji the water industry produces a million bottles of water a day and creates about 250 jobs in terms of production and roughly 2,500 jobs in supporting industries from catering to transportation, about half the people on the island have no safe drinking water.

Within 20 years, global water requirements will reach 6,900 billion cubic metres. This will be 40 per cent more than today's accessible water resources, according to the 2030 Water Resources Group's 2009 report, and some developing countries will only have less than half the water they actually need.

But based on an estimated mid-single digit growth rate similar to that in the past five years, 328 billion cubic metres will be wasted on the production of bottled water.

Apart from the 17 million barrels of oil used annually and the 2.5 million tonnes of CO2 produced through the manufacture of PET bottles, such bottles are packaged and transported all over the world, leaving an even larger carbon footprint.

And, although PET bottles are fully recyclable, only a small fraction of them are recycled worldwide. The rest ends up either in the sea or in landfills.

While sales of bottled water have increased globally, in the US and Europe they fell by 1-3 per cent in 2008 and, although last year's figures are not yet available, they were forecast to fall again. Many hope that, apart from the impact of our tough economic times, the drop has been due to growing activism and increased awareness of the environmental impact of producing and transporting bottled water.

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Read the other three parts of our bottled water series