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Bottled water is set to be the latest battleground in the eco war
Lucy Siegle, The Observer, Sunday 10th Feb 2008 When the National Consumer Council recently investigated 'rip‐off mineral water' in restaurants, it found 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 tap water 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 her tap 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 developed economies. 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. In the US, camping shops selling metal water bottles report a huge increase in sales as the bottled‐water bottle 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 by 3.4 per cent year on year, and 8.1 per cent for own brands, according to recent statistics from the Grocer magazine, although admittedly these were attributed to a terrible summer rather than a burgeoning environmental consciousness. It is too early to proclaim the demise of the £2bn British water industry, but the industry that was born when, as an ex‐chief executive of Perrier once put it, he realised '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 starts with packaging. Most bottled water is siphoned into PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles; of 13bn plastic bottles sold in the UK last year, just 3bn were recycled. As recycling rates remain dismally low, making bottles requires virgin materials, namely petroleum feedstocks. It takes 162g of oil and seven litres of water (including power plant cooling water) just to manufacture 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 the 29bn plastic bottles used annually in the US, the world's biggest consumer of bottled water, requires more 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: what happens to our enormous pile of empties? The answer isn't encouraging. Most are landfilled (Americans throw 30m water bottles into landfill every day) or, in the UK, increasingly incinerated, where only a tiny proportion 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 a boat made from waste water bottles highlighting the impact of such consumer dependencies. His voyage will take him through the Eastern Garbage Patch, the rubbish‐strewn region which comprises hundreds of miles of the northern Pacific. It was first encountered by researchers in 1999; they counted a 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 merely aesthetic issue. The research nets appear to be closing in. 'I am absolutely not clear why we need bottled water,' says Dr Richard Thompson, a marine scientist from Plymouth University, 'when we have one 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 deeper than abstract litter. The footprint doesn't end there. Globally, nearly a quarter of all bottled water crosses national borders to 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 up considerable water miles and ensuing carbon emissions. In 2004 for example, Nord Water of Finland bottled and shipped 1.4m bottles of Finnish tap water 4,300 kilometres from its bottling plant in Helsinki to Saudi Arabia. Fiji water ‐ a particularly potent symbol of excess, according to campaigners, which can apparently '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 water we drink comes from France) and between source, bottling plants and central distribution points in the UK generates 30,100 tonnes of CO2 Then there's the extraction, rarely from the homespun operation you might readily associate with artesian 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 40m litres a year from the springs. Naturally, the water industry argues that is it lately more sinned against than sinning; the British Bottled Water 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 a major 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 as Bling H2O, replete in a glass bottle adorned with Swarovski crystals, the water industry is seemingly on an eco drive. Last week Danone Waters UK (owners of market leaders Evian and Volvic) announced a pilot water bottle recycling scheme in Glasgow, and highlighted the way Evian plastic bottles concertina down (you need to be quite strong) after use to minimise space in the recycling truck. Nestlé has responded with a new eco‐shaped bottle that uses 30 per cent less plastic than a standard half‐litre bottle 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 have already 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 bottles take 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 their recycling. These kinds of measures look unlikely to unseat a backlash, already established in the US: last year, New York City launched a campaign to persuade people to cut back on bottled water use and return to good old tap water (officials claim it's the finest in the world); San Francisco's mayor Gavin Newsom banned city employees from using 'public money' to buy anything so ludicrous as imported water; while Chicago mayor Richard Daley brought in a five‐cents‐a‐bottle tax on plastic bottles from the start of the year to limit the strain on municipal waste systems (currently the subject of a legal challenge from the water industry). On 1 February, the House of Representatives launched an investigation into the effect bottled water manufacturers have on health. And this is a backlash that travels. When Labour MP John Spellar began to ask questions about bottled water use in the House of Commons, the answer ‐ 'a total of 105,957 litres of bottled water was sold by the House of Commons Refreshment Department in 2006‐07' ‐ was shocking. Campaign organisation Sustain (the Alliance for Better Food and Farming), which thinks bottled water should just be for emergencies, is awaiting responses from all UK central and local government departments to ascertain
which are drinking from the tap and which are still using public money to buy mineral water. Meanwhile, Jenny Jones, a Green party member of the London Assembly, has thrown in her lot with Thames Water (which has a vested interest in persuading us to drink from the tap), launching a campaign based on a successful run in Paris where leading restaurants have been offering Pierre Cardin carafes full of tap water instead of mineral water. 'I'd love a chain to get involved, like Pizza Express,' she says. 'It's really about time we sorted out such unnecessary waste.' When Arthur Potts Dawson, the chef behind London's Acorn House, launched his new restaurant Waterhouse last week, there wasn't a bottle of water in sight. 'When we started Acorn House we didn't know if the consumer would do without bottled water; we found it was 50/50. Now we're ready to do without.' He won't supply bottled water even if customers beg for it. Instead he's installed a 'top of the range' filtration system for which diners will be charged a small cover charge. 'It's just about lowering impact of what we're doing. I'm not making a comment on choice, but just imagine how much traffic we'd take off the road for starters by not ferrying all that water about. How much of those trucks are full of water?' Continue in this vein and the fact that Claridge's has a 32‐strong mineral water menu and that you routinely see 40 brands of water on the shelves of a medium‐sized supermarket will start to look ridiculous. Food and Water Watch emphasises the fact that bottling water depletes groundwater, increases toxic emissions and damages road and other infrastructure. In the near future, those who carry a pristine water bottle could look like bad citizens. It's a reversal of what Andrew Szasz, the US sociology professor and author of EcoPopulism, calls 'inverted quarantine', a self‐centred form of consumerism where we are so focused on minimising exposure to toxins that we ignore the wider environmental ramifications. Equally chillingly, Szasz insists it results in a type of 'political anaesthesia', especially when it comes to bottled water. 'It is estimated that hundreds of billions of dollars will have to be spent in the next decades to keep the nation's public water infrastructure in good repair, to keep up with growing demand and to upgrade water purification to deal with new pollutants,' he claims. 'With a substantial portion of the population drinking bottled water and/or filtering their water, what is the likelihood that politicians will hear from their constituents that they should be voting to make that necessary investment?' Arguably, consumers have also switched on to the deeper‐running ethical argument: the one that questions why they are paying massive corporations through the nose for clean water, something that 1.3 billion people don't have access to. Collectively we spend five times more on bottled water each year than it would cost to eradicate the 1.8 million deaths of children attributable to waterborne illness each year. By 2025, it's estimated that demand will exceed supply by over 50 per cent, leaving 5 billion people without access to clean water. The only people salivating at this prospect are the City traders furiously
buying 'wet stocks' in privatised water. The latest beverage research from Mintel states that '2008 will be the beginning of a significant backlash against plain bottled water'. For the industry, it will be especially troublesome that the anti‐bottled water brigade actually have an eco‐friendly alternative. It transpires that our every‐day hydration (eight glasses a day is generally thought a good amount) can be met by a low carbon footprint (the mains structure is comparatively efficient and uses little energy) that is rigorously tested (by the Drinking Water Inspectorate) to standards above and beyond its bottled cousin and which in the event of any contamination would be immediately recalled ‐ again, this is not the case for bottled water. All we consumers need do is to turn on the tap.