The growth of the bottled water industry in Australia has led to increased scrutiny of its impact on access to safe drinking sources, the public’s perception of tap water and the environment.
The Asia-Pacific region is the biggest consumer of bottled water in the world at 49 per cent of total consumption, followed by North America and Europe, according to a report from the United Nations University Institute for Water.
While there are tap water concerns in parts of the Asia-Pacific, Australia has few problems on this front.
However, the UN report, released on Friday, revealed Australians are among the biggest consumers of bottled water per capita, spending $386 per person in 2021.
Experts told The New Daily that while bottled water was a valuable resource during emergencies, such as the Lismore floods, its widespread use raised concerns. They argue that high-quality tap water is accessible at a significantly lower cost.
“For most people, on most occasions, there is no need to purchase bottled water when water of very high quality can be obtained from a tap at a much lower costs, both financial cost and impacts to the environment cost,” Professor, School of Civil and Environmental Engineering Stuart Khan told TND.
“Many Australians increasingly get by perfectly well by carrying a reusable bottle with them as they go about their daily activities, often refilling it at no cost at publicly available supplies.”
‘Very clever marketing’
Environmental public health scientist Dr Paul Harvey said the sale of bottled water was “clever marketing” and that ultimately people were wasting their money.
“One of the biggest scams of the bottle industry is … that you’ll find that a whole lot of the lower cost waters on the market have been produced in nothing much other than an industrial lot with industrial-sized filtration system and a bottling plant.
“It’s certainly very clever marketing that encourages the consumer to buy bottled water.”
Cathy Cook, head of corporate affairs at The Australian Beverages Council, told TND that the bottled water industry did not recommend bottled water over tap in its marketing and advertising strategies.
She said public health initiatives over decades had encouraged consumers and the non-alcoholic beverages industry to increase consumption of plain water.
“Obviously a brand is going to advertise its bottled water [but] I don’t think we denigrate tap water.”
She said brands promoted bottles as a sustainable and convenient option when tap water was unavailable, including one brand that uses 100 per cent recycled PET for its bottles.
Recycled PET is repurposed plastic from items such as bottles, transformed into new products to reduce waste and environmental impact.
Environmental advocates point to the significant pollution caused by plastic bottles, which can persist for decades or centuries in rivers and oceans, harming marine life.
There is also some concern about the presence of micro-plastics in bottled water.
A 2022 study examined the exposure of Australians to micro-plastics, which are tiny plastic particles, through the consumption of bottled water.
The study discovered that Australians, on average, consume 30.8 litres of bottled water a year and, as a result, consume about 400 micro-plastics annually by drinking bottled water.
Researchers said further study was needed to learn more about the risks of consuming bottled water.
Dr Harvey said that there is a need for community education and awareness to promote the use of tap water and more sustainable alternatives.
“We do have really good quality [water] for the most part in Australia, we’re exceptionally lucky when you compare Australia to the US, for example,” he said.
“We don’t see contaminants entering into the water, which means that the tap water is exceptionally safe.”
According to the UN report, the industry’s growth undermines progress towards providing universal access to safe water.
It says that the unrestricted expansion of the industry is not strategically aligned with the goal of universal access, and serves as a distraction, redirecting attention to a less reliable and less affordable option while remaining highly profitable for producers.
“The rise in bottled water consumption reflects decades of limited progress in and many failures of public supply systems,” the director of the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health, Kaveh Madani, said.
“This points to a global case of extreme social injustice, whereby billions of people worldwide do not have access to reliable water services while others enjoy water luxury.”