How did it happen that the bottled water industry can take what is clean, readily available and free in the west, package it in non-biodegradable plastic, and sell it back to consumers at highly inflated prices?
How could so many customers fall for this trick?
Not only that, but profits continue to rise. In 2010, more than 2 billion liters were consumed in the UK, which equates to 33 liters per person, a figure projected to rise to 40 liters by 2020.
In the US, more than 40 billion liters were sold last year, in an estimated 28 billion plastic bottles that it took 17m barrels of oil to manufacture (enough to fuel about 100,000 cars for the entire year). The industry in the US is worth $22 billion a year and sales are increasing at a rate of 5.4 per cent annually.
On an even more depressing side note, nearly 8 out of every 10 of those bottles ends up in a landfill, translating to about a 23 percent recycling rate.
Why Do Consumers Continue To Buy Bottled Water?
One reason is the aggressive marketing campaign that is being waged by the bottled water industry. In the UK last month, the Natural Hydration Council (NHC), an industry body formed by the UK’s three biggest bottlers: Nestlé Waters (makers of Buxton, Perrier and San Pellegrino), Danone Waters (Evian and Volvic) and Highland Spring, handed its lucrative public relations account to Pegasus PR, whose clients include Pfizer and Bayer.
From The Ecologist:
Pegasus’s role is to ensure the NHC’s ‘authoritative voice in the hydration debate is heard more clearly’ and consolidate the successes of its predecessor, Munro & Foster, tasked in 2009 with preventing bottled water from being compared to tap water.
The NHC was formed in 2008 to prevent declining sales: 2,240m litres of bottled water were drunk in 2006, 2,125m in 2007 and 2,005m in 2008. Price, negative blind tastings (consumers prefer tap or perceive no difference) and campaigns such as those run by London’s Evening Standard, to encourage people to ask for tap water in restaurants, all played their part.
Apparently the campaign worked: by 2009, domestic consumption had bounced back to 2,040m liters, then to 2,050m liters in 2010; 2011 figures are expected to be around 2,100m liters.
Your Right To Choose Is At Stake!
In the US, the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA) has cleverly turned bottled water into a freedom of choice issue. It likes to point out, as it did in 2008 when Toronto City Council chose to prevent plastic bottles from being sold on municipal premises, that ‘less healthy beverages [are] packaged in a denser grade of plastic at twice the volume of bottled water’.
The IBWA is also attempting to make the issue a constitutional one through its consumer arm, Bottled Water Matters, a ‘pro-bottle’ internet campaign aimed at encouraging Americans to stand up for their right to bottled water.
According to its video: ‘There are people who want to take your choice away, people who want bottled water off store shelves because they think it’s unnecessary, but you know that’s not true.’ ‘Bottled water is one of the healthiest drinks on the shelf’ and “Your freedom of choice is at stake.”
Thankfully, Not Everyone Believes These Lies
However, more than 90 US universities – including Harvard, Brown and Vermont – have banned or are intending to ban bottled water on campus. New students are being given stainless-steel bottles and asked to refill from filtered water taps. Meanwhile more than 100 towns and cities have voted to ban bottled water to reduce waste.
Such campaigns are taken seriously because the industry’s biggest markets are the US and Europe, says Res Gehriger, the Swiss journalist and filmmaker behind Bottled Life: The Truth about Nestlé’s Business with Water, which explores Nestlé’s commercialisation of community-owned water sources in the developing world.
In addition, earlier this year the National Park Service voted to ban the sale of single-use plastic water bottles at Grand Canyon National Park, something which was already happening in Zion National Park, in Utah, which created a similar ban in 2008 and eliminated 60,000 plastic bottles from the park in 2009.
According to the Natural Defenses Council, 40 percent of bottled water is nothing more than tap water anyway. Tap water is more highly regulated than bottled water, and it’s virtually free. Go with refillable bottles for you and your kids!