On the label there’s an image of a mountain glacier, snow capped mountains, or perhaps a pristine mountain lake. The label may also contain words like: clear, refreshing, healthy, pure, and natural. When you combine these images with aggressive marketing campaigns that promote the benefits of drinking their products, it’s little wonder the bottled water industry is seeing phenomenal worldwide growth.
But is it really better to drink bottled water than tap water? And, for that matter, are you really getting anything different? This topic not only shows changes in consumer preferences, but is also an indication of the public’s increasing mistrust of local water distribution systems.
Well-publicized contaminated water occurrences have caused the public to question the safety of local water supplies. The general feeling among many people is that the water coming out of their tap is not safe to drink. This feeling is reinforced by advertisements portraying bottled water consumption as the way to avoid possible contamination from pathogens, chemicals, and other nasty constituents that tap water may contain. However, the ads do not tell you that in some cases, the bottled water you are drinking may actually come out of the same type of municipal water supply you are trying to avoid. In fact, some U.S. municipalities have actually considered entering the market themselves, by selling water bottled straight from their taps.
In many parts of the world, people do not have access to a water distribution system, particularly the poorest people. In these instances they often have no choice but to purchase bottled water at prices that are often excessively high. However, in industrialized countries people generally have access to clean and inexpensive water, but many still prefer to drink the bottled variety.
You can buy 1000 litres of tap water for much less than the price of one litre of some bottled waters, yet people are willing to pay the price because they believe bottled water is safer than tap water. According to Health Canada information, this belief is not supported by facts. People believe bottled water to be more pure and natural than tap water, yet some bottled water resembles a manufactured product more than something natural.
Many people say they prefer the taste of bottled water since it lacks the chlorine taste commonly found in tap water. It’s interesting to note that a study done in New York found that in blind taste tests, the majority of people favored New York City municipal water when compared to several leading brands of bottled water. Health conscious people are also choosing bottled water over other beverages such as soft drinks, which also contributes to the increase in sales.
The Business of Selling Water
The worldwide consumption of bottled water is increasing every year, a growth higher than any other beverage group. Billions of litres of bottled water are sold each year, worth billions of dollars. The Canadian bottled water industry is also expanding rapidly showing a steady rate of growth. The number of bottling plants is increasing as is employment in the industry. Of the more than 100 brands of bottled water available in Canada, 80 percent are from local suppliers. Most of the plants are located in Quebec, Ontario and B.C.
Due to the availability of Canada’s water resources, the international beverage industry sees Canada as an attractive place to set up manufacturing and distribution operations. This has caused an increase in mergers and acquisitions. The large soft drink companies have entered the bottled water business as well, and are using their huge distribution networks to market their water products worldwide.
With the growth of the Canadian bottled water industry, the country has become a net exporter of water products. Most of the bottled water produced in Canada is exported, worth hundreds of millions of dollars. The U.S. is Canada’s largest market and U.S. exports comprise most of Canada’s total bottled water production. In fact, Canada supplies a significant percentage of the U.S. bottled water imports.
The bottled water industry is indeed big business and is increasingly becoming dominated by large international corporations. They are all selling basically the same colourless, tasteless, and odourless product, so the only way to distinguish theirs from that of their competitors is packaging and promotion. Unique bottles and attractive labels can prompt consumers to choose one brand over another, however, it is the advertising campaigns that can really make the difference.
Some companies spend large amounts of money on promotion. It fact, 10 to 15 percent of the cost of a bottle of water may go to pay for promotion. In essence, what they are selling is the perception that bottled water is pure and healthy, and drinking it will make you feel good.
Many people believe drinking bottled water will actually improve their health. There is no question that drinking water is better than drinking many other beverages, however, is bottled water really better than tap water? Natural mineral waters contain a high concentration of minerals. These waters have been consumed for centuries and some believe they have medicinal properties. According to the World Health Organization, there is no evidence to support this belief. Excess consumption of water with high mineral contents may in fact be harmful to human health.
The bottling companies push the idea that their products are healthier than tap water, and possess higher nutritive values. However, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the nutritive value of bottled water is no different than that of tap water. Bottled products do not have the “magical” qualities the bottlers would like us to believe they have. This does not stop producers from coming up with new ways to sell the idea. One water product is marketed specifically to pregnant women, another promotes the idea that drinking it will help people lose weight, and yet another is promoted as an aphrodisiac. There is even a product produced specifically for pets.
International standards help to ensure that bottled water products are safe, however, local bottlers may not necessarily follow them and instances of contamination and illnesses have occurred. Health Canada recommends that you drink only carbonated or disinfected bottled water when traveling to other countries.
Generally, bottled water sold in Canada has been found to be safe in terms of pathogens and chemicals. The occurrence of illnesses caused by the consumption of bottled water in Canada is rare. Bottled water products are considered food items in Canada, and as such, domestic and imported products are monitored by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. In addition, there may also be provincial and/or municipal monitoring taking place. Members of the Canadian Bottled Water Association are also subject to the standards of the association.
Although bottled water sold in Canada has been found to be safe, there are other problems associated with the bottling process. Disinfection removes harmful bacteria, however, the water is not sterile. Bacteria can be introduced from the packaging or during the filling process. Studies have demonstrated that bacterial levels in the bottle can rise quickly if the product is not refrigerated, as is often the case. Although this is not considered a health hazard, Health Canada still recommends that bottled water be refrigerated after purchasing, and especially after opening. Large containers should only be used with a refrigerated dispenser that is cleaned regularly.
An issue that is beginning to get more attention is the possible contamination of water contained in a bottle, by the bottle itself. Many bottled water containers are made from a form of plastic called polyethylene terephthalate, or PET. It’s light, clear, strong, and flexible – properties that make it well suited for bottling water. However, some studies suggest that components of the plastic are leaching into the water. Some of these components are possible carcinogens and hormone disruptors. This is an area that does require further research, however, it certainly raises questions about the health aspects of drinking bottled water. PET bottles are designed for single use only and should not be reused. To do so would increase the likelihood of contamination.
Although water extraction for bottling purposes represents a small percentage of the total amount taken for all uses, it is still significant. Of the hundreds of billions of litres of bottled water consumed every year worldwide, 25 percent are exported. As was previously mentioned, Canada exports a significant percent of its bottled water production, which amounts to hundreds of millions of litres each year. Basically, Canada is exporting its water resources.
Water export is a very controversial issue for many Canadians, and there are strong arguments being made on either side. Many people are concerned that removing large amounts of water from our aquifers or surface water bodies for export, would ultimately lower water tables thus placing stress on the local environments.
The biggest environmental impact of the industry is the bottles themselves. Most of them are made from some form of plastic (usually PET or PVC). Plastics are of course made from petroleum products – a non-renewable resource. The water bottling industry requires a large number of bottles to meet its needs. In fact, it takes more than 1.5 million tons of plastic to manufacture the needed containers. The plastics industry can release toxic contaminants into the air and water, therefore, environmental and human health impacts can be significant.
Although plastic water bottles can be recycled, many of them end up in the landfills. In the U.S., only 22 percent of PET bottles were recycled in 1997. The addition of millions of tons of slowly decomposing plastic bottles to our landfills is causing them to fill up rapidly. As the plastic slowly breaks down over hundreds of years, toxic chemicals are released which can cause groundwater contamination. In essence, the bottled water industry is poisoning the very resource upon which it relies. An additional source of waste is the extra packaging that is used to ship bottles, most of which also ends up in the landfills.
The delivery of tap water is much less energy intensive. The water is pumped through underground pipes and is delivered directly to the tap of the consumer. The same cannot be said for bottled water. It must be transported from the bottling plant to the consumer. In some cases it must also be transported from the source to the bottling plant. This requires vehicles that burn a great amount of fossil fuels, resulting in the associated problems such as pollution and climate change.
In cases where people have no access to a safe water system, or their water system does not supply high-quality water, bottled water may be an alternative. It may also be necessary to drink it when travelling to countries that have questionable tap water – assuming you have confidence in the safety of the bottled water. Therefore, bottled water can meet certain needs. However, the presumption that it's healthier and safer to drink than tap water does not seem to be the case in most situations, particularly in Canada. It also seems that in many cases, people do not even prefer the taste to that of tap water.
If you chose not to drink the water directly from your tap, you may want to consider installing additional treatment devices in your home or place of business to avoid buying bottles. At least that way, you are not contributing to the problems associated with water bottles. If you still choose to drink bottled water, read the label carefully and know what you are buying. For example, by purchasing water from local sources, you are helping to decrease the environmental costs associated with transporting products large distances.
The negative environmental impacts of the bottling industry are significant compared to the delivery of water through a community system. The environmental costs are simply too high to ignore. Perhaps if the money spent on bottled water was put into the upgrading and monitoring of existing municipal water systems, and the construction of new facilities, there would be no need for anyone to look elsewhere for drinking water. Consumers would save a lot of money, and the environmental impacts would be greatly decreased.
Rick de Vries is the Director of Development for the Fresh Outlook Foundation. He has a background in research and environmental sciences, and has many years of experience writing and editing for environmentally related media.