Bottled water is not necessarily better than tap water. And the water bottling industry poses serious environmental problems. The findings of the study, released Thursday by the Institute for Water, Environment and Health, a United Nations think tank, are alarming.
“The bottled water industry helps mask a global problem: the failure of public systems to provide reliable drinking water for everyone,” she says. Yet it is a key target of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted by the United Nations in 2015.
Fast growing sector
Based on data covering nearly 110 countries, the institute first notes that in just five decades, bottled water has become “a major and essentially autonomous economic sector”. It grew by 73% between 2010 and 2020. And sales are expected to almost double by 2030, from $270 billion to $500 billion. To date, more than one million bottles of water are sold every minute around the world.
Strict tap water quality standards are rarely applied to bottled water.
Vladimir Smakhtin One of the authors of the report
Often presented as healthier than tap water, bottled water, considered a luxury in some developed countries but very common in emerging countries such as China and Indonesia, raises doubts. For one of the report’s authors, Vladimir Smakhtin, former director of the institute, “bottled water is generally not as well regulated. It is tested less frequently with fewer parameters. Strict tap water quality standards are rarely applied to bottled water, and even if such testing is done, the results rarely make it into the public domain.”
Clearly, the major bottled water producers have largely avoided the scrutiny that governments impose on public water services. The origin of the bottled water, the treatment processes used such as chlorination, the storage conditions and the packaging (plastic, glass), can all potentially alter the quality of the water. Sometimes heavy metals, pesticides or pathogens can be found there.
Another problem detected, there is “little data available on the volumes of water extracted”, indicates Vladimir Smakhtin. “This is largely due to the lack of transparency and legal basis which would have required bottling companies to make this information public and assess the environmental consequences”.
Added to this is the fact that local impacts on water resources can be significant. “In the United States, for example, Nestlé Waters extracts 3 million liters per day from sources in Florida; in France, Danone extracts up to 10 million liters per day from Evian-les-Bains in the French Alps; and in China, the Hangzhou Wahaha group extracts up to 12 million liters per day from springs in the mountains of Changbai”, testifies the institute. In countries like Germany, Italy, the UK, Canada and Indonesia, groundwater constitutes 70-85% of all bottled water produced.
A mountain of trash
Water withdrawals by the beverage industry contribute to the depletion of groundwater and groundwater resources, which are already suffering from their use by other economic sectors such as agriculture. In view of the droughts that are raging here and there in the world, water management in the future will be of prime importance. Next week, a United Nations conference on water will discuss the subject.
To make matters worse, the increasingly intensive use of bottled water poses a serious environmental problem. According to the latest estimates put forward by the institute, the bottled water sector used 35% of the plastic bottles produced worldwide in 2019. The industry thus produced around 600 billion plastic bottles and containers ( sachets, carboys) in 2021, which gives rise to some 25 million tonnes of plastic waste. Most are not recycled and end up in landfills. To measure the scale of the challenge, it suffices to know that this enormous mass of plastic is equivalent to the weight of 625,000 40-ton trucks. Enough to form a bumper-to-bumper line from New York to Bangkok.