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Bottled Water - Latest Battleground in the Eco War

Bottled Water - Latest Battleground in the Eco War

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Published by: Brocke on Dec 13, 2008
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02/02/2011

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It's just water, right? Wrong. Bottledwater is set to be the latest battlegroundin the eco war
Lucy Siegle, The Observer, Sunday 10th Feb 2008
 When the National Consumer Council recently investigated 'rip‐off mineral water' in restaurants, itfound one in five people 'slightly nervous' or 'too scared' to ask for tap water.Laura Taylor is evidently cut from different cloth to these timid respondents. 'I'll have a glass of tapwater please, no ice,' she announces, with a polite, decisive smile, snapping shut the menu at one of London's not‐quite exclusive restaurants earlier this week. She is firm, to the point and unflinching in hertap water request. The waitress doesn't so much as raise an eyebrow.Taylor, 36, who works for a charity, is neither a cheapskate nor an eco‐warrior but hates the idea of bottled water. 'I just don't see the point of paying for water when tap water is completely fine,' she says.The act of unashamedly specifying tap water is a growing trend across major cities in developedeconomies. It's a trend buoyed by consumers rediscovering the tap in their own homes, with tales of carrying refillable bottles of home or filtered tap water to the gym, to the office and even to schools. Inthe US, camping shops selling metal water bottles report a huge increase in sales as the bottled‐waterbottle supplants the plastic bag as the ultimate symbol of unsustainable profligacy.The tide appears to be turning. During the summer, UK sales of the main brands of bottled water fell by3.4 per cent year on year, and 8.1 per cent for own brands, according to recent statistics from theGrocer magazine, although admittedly these were attributed to a terrible summer rather than aburgeoning environmental consciousness. It is too early to proclaim the demise of the £2bn Britishwater industry, but the industry that was born when, as an ex‐chief executive of Perrier once put it, herealised 'all you had to do is take the water out of the ground and then sell it for more than the price of wine, milk or oil,' would appear to be losing its charms.Britons still consume 3bn litres of bottled water a year, and there lies the ecological rub, which startswith packaging. Most bottled water is siphoned into PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles; of 13bnplastic bottles sold in the UK last year, just 3bn were recycled.As recycling rates remain dismally low, making bottles requires virgin materials, namely petroleumfeedstocks. It takes 162g of oil and seven litres of water (including power plant cooling water) just tomanufacture a one‐litre bottle, creating over 100g of greenhouse gas emissions (10 balloons full of CO2)per empty bottle. Extrapolate this for the developed world (2.4m tonnes of plastic are used to bottle
 
water each year) and it represents serious oil use for what is essentially a single‐use object. To make the29bn plastic bottles used annually in the US, the world's biggest consumer of bottled water, requiresmore than 17m barrels of oil a year, enough to fuel more than a million cars for a year.Given that water bottles suffer from lamentable recycling and reuse rates (the screw caps are usually of an unidentified plastic that doesn't fit into most local authority recycling schemes), the question is: whathappens to our enormous pile of empties? The answer isn't encouraging. Most are landfilled (Americansthrow 30m water bottles into landfill every day) or, in the UK, increasingly incinerated, where only a tinyproportion of their energy value can be recovered; the rest becomes environmental pollution,particularly in the ocean where, as the plastic slowly fragments, it poses a serious threat to wildlife .Later this year, environmental campaigner David de Rothschild will set off across the Pacific Ocean in aboat made from waste water bottles highlighting the impact of such consumer dependencies. Hisvoyage will take him through the Eastern Garbage Patch, the rubbish‐strewn region which compriseshundreds of miles of the northern Pacific. It was first encountered by researchers in 1999; they counteda million pieces of plastic per square mile, almost all of it less than a few millimetres across.The bottled water industry will find it increasingly hard to write off water bottle pollution as a merelyaesthetic issue. The research nets appear to be closing in. 'I am absolutely not clear why we needbottled water,' says Dr Richard Thompson, a marine scientist from Plymouth University, 'when we haveone of the best municipal water set‐ups in the world.'His main preoccuption is with plastic: 'We've now tracked plastics particles smaller than a human hair,to 20 microns,' says Thompson, 'and we've found nine different polymers, consistent with water bottles,all over the UK and further afield as well.' It would appear the impact of bottled water runs far deeperthan abstract litter.The footprint doesn't end there. Globally, nearly a quarter of all bottled water crosses national bordersto reach consumers. There are many horror stories of air freighted 'status' waters, but in reality the journey of bottled water normally includes boat, train and truck ‐ journeys that can still rack upconsiderable water miles and ensuing carbon emissions. In 2004 for example, Nord Water of Finlandbottled and shipped 1.4m bottles of Finnish tap water 4,300 kilometres from its bottling plant in Helsinkito Saudi Arabia. Fiji water ‐ a particularly potent symbol of excess, according to campaigners, which canapparently 'trace its origins to rainfall more than 400 years ago in the Fijian mountains' ‐ makes a journey of 10,000 miles to get to UK supermarket shelves.Overall, the ecological burden of carting bottled water internationally (a quarter of all the bottled waterwe drink comes from France) and between source, bottling plants and central distribution points in theUK generates 30,100 tonnes of CO2Then there's the extraction, rarely from the homespun operation you might readily associate withartesian wells. Bottled water is big business, requiring industrial extraction and huge bottling plants. In
 
the UK, Coca‐Cola owns Malvern Hills water and a licence from the Environment Agency to draw 40mlitres a year from the springs.Naturally, the water industry argues that is it lately more sinned against than sinning; the British BottledWater Producers (BBWP) point out that, because natural waters must be free from pollution,commercially exploited springs in the UK are some of the best managed environments in the country.'Few other industries, except perhaps organic farming,' Jo Jacobius of the BBWP insists, 'play such amajor role in protecting the countryside, doing much to minimise environmental damage.'In a marked change from the more provocative stance that saw the launch of 'status' waters such asBling H2O, replete in a glass bottle adorned with Swarovski crystals, the water industry is seemingly onan eco drive. Last week Danone Waters UK (owners of market leaders Evian and Volvic) announced apilot water bottle recycling scheme in Glasgow, and highlighted the way Evian plastic bottles concertinadown (you need to be quite strong) after use to minimise space in the recycling truck. Nestlé hasresponded with a new eco‐shaped bottle that uses 30 per cent less plastic than a standard half‐litrebottle and now even Fiji water plans to become 'carbon negative' by 2010.These are changes that the industry hopes will pacify very light‐green consumers, some of whom havealready changed to glass bottles in an effort to reduce their H2O footprint. Although there is a well‐established route for glass recycling in the UK, this is not quite the panacea many consumers imagine;glass is much heavier, so increases transport emissions and there remains a surfeit of glass in the UK.In any case, overall recycling rates are still low. Similarly, the drive towards biodegradable bottles(notably the Belu brand) doesn't yet stack up ecologically. Although made from cornstarch, the bottlestake months to biodegrade in a domestic compost heap, requiring an industrial composting facility.However, as there are no separate collections, consumers either put them in the bin or in theirrecycling.These kinds of measures look unlikely to unseat a backlash, already established in the US: last year, NewYork City launched a campaign to persuade people to cut back on bottled water use and return to goodold tap water (officials claim it's the finest in the world); San Francisco's mayor Gavin Newsom bannedcity employees from using 'public money' to buy anything so ludicrous as imported water; while Chicagomayor Richard Daley brought in a five‐cents‐a‐bottle tax on plastic bottles from the start of the year tolimit the strain on municipal waste systems (currently the subject of a legal challenge from the waterindustry). On 1 February, the House of Representatives launched an investigation into the effect bottledwater manufacturers have on health.And this is a backlash that travels. When Labour MP John Spellar began to ask questions about bottledwater use in the House of Commons, the answer ‐ 'a total of 105,957 litres of bottled water was sold bythe House of Commons Refreshment Department in 2006‐07' ‐ was shocking. Campaign organisationSustain (the Alliance for Better Food and Farming), which thinks bottled water should just be foremergencies, is awaiting responses from all UK central and local government departments to ascertain

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