Time to put a lid on bottled water

‘Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former’. That’s the view of no less an observer than Albert Einstein.

Though his judgement may seem a little harsh, the strange story of bottled water may well bear him out. Barely 30 years ago, nobody bar a few oddballs drank bottled water. Most people rightly scoffed at paying for something that came straight from the tap, free of charge.

But of course the marketing gurus knew better. The techniques they use to persuade people to take leave of their senses and pay ten times over the odds for consumer goods, simply by sticking on a ‘brand’ logo were perfectly honed to take the next logical step – to produce and market a ‘product’ not an iota better than that which flows fresh from the tap, free of charge.

First we laughed, but soon we were lapping it up – quite literally. While in the UK and globally, Perrier was the first bottled water to make it big, here in Ireland entrepreneur Geoff Read knew a good thing when he saw it and launched the Ballygowan brand.

Today, we Irish consume over 125 million litres of bottled water a year. This, in a country which isn’t very warm, in which water falls freely from the sky and in a country which produces safe, clean and good tasting tap water and doesn’t even meter or charge the public for its usage. Mr Einstein was indeed a shrewd observer of human nature.

For a light-hearted but telling account of exactly how people are suckered into buying bottled waters and how we even fool ourselves into thinking it tastes better, see the US clip below (they even managed to persuade diners in a posh restaurant to drink phony ‘Amazon’ water with a huge spider in the bottom of the bottle!)

Indeed, a survey by the Consumers Association of Ireland in 2007 found that bottled water is more expensive, litre for litre, than orange juice, milk, fizzy drinks and even some brands of lager. Craziest of all, the survey found people paying twice as much per litre for ‘premium’ bottled waters as for petrol!There was a short-lived outbreak of common sense in 2004, when Coca-Cola had to withdraw its bottled water ‘Dasani’ after journalists in the UK twigged that this ‘pure’ water was in fact good old common-or-garden tap water, being poured into bottles and sold by the master marketeers. At least the Coke people were being honest, after a fashion.This humiliation, it should be added, didn’t deter Coca-Cola in its home market. Americans have no problem (or are simply haven’t noticed) paying top dollar for municipal tap water put into a plastic bottle by a fizzy drinks maker.

Earlier this evening, the BBC’s ‘Panorama’ investigated the high environmental cost of our bizarre love affair with bottled water. A premium brand called ‘Fiji’ is sold in top London (and no doubt, Dublin) hotels. And yes, it is indeed drilled in Fiji, then shipped over 10,000 miles to Europe and beyond.

Meanwhile, one in three Fijiians doesn’t have access to safe drinking water, and serious illnesses and deaths from typhus and other water-borne diseases. Local activists point out also that extraction of huge amounts of water for export is draining the island’s aquifers, putting even more pressure on the locals’ water supplies.

An average bottle of European-originated bottled waters such as Volvic generates up to 200 grams of CO2 in the carbon cost of its transport. Add to that the millions of tons of plastics (made from scarce fossil fuels) and you begin to get an idea just how unsustainable our fashionable infatuation with bottled water really is.

And after being used for only a few minutes, the plastic bottles are quickly discarded, many ending up in landfill, and millions more being washed up in our rivers and along our coastlines.

The take-home messages are pretty simple. If you (a) have a lick of common sense; (b) care even slightly about the environment; and (c) think it’s mildly obscene to steal drinking water from poor countries for our whims, it’s time to bin bottled water.

Instead, keep your last plastic bottle (don’t worry, it is designed to last for thousands of years anyhow) and re-fill it from the tap with tasty fresh, free water. As you drink, just close your eyes and think of glaciers…

In the office, if your organisation has a water cooler, you should politely suggest to the powers-that-be that they could save a bundle – and do the right environmental thing – by cancelling the contract and encouraging people at meetings to fill up a jug of tasty tap water instead of that silly bottled stuff.

If there are any doubting Thomases in the office, or if you’re not convinced yourself, the proof is in the drinking. Get a friend to put some chilled still bottled water into one glass, and water straight from the tap but chilled to the same level into the other.

Unless your palate is even more refined than some of the world’s top sommelliers, you will absolutely not be able to taste any difference. Except that the tap water won’t have that nasty tang that comes from some waters in plastic bottles where the plastic itself has tainted the taste.

Go on, let’s all prove Einstein wrong. It’s a no-brainer.

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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2 Responses to Time to put a lid on bottled water

  1. bill says:

    bottled water is definitely a problem, of course there are much worse problems, but then we have to start somewhere, and lets face it, without water, none of us are going to last very long anyway

  2. Tim B. says:

    hear hear, this carting bloody tap water around the world in bottles and selling it back to eejits who are mad enough to pay for it is dumb beyond reason. guess lots of people are just that, have a look at all the muppets in the dundrum center buying crap on their credit cards like the sun will never come up again.

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