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The monumental problem of bottled water and plastic pollution in our oceans.

July 11, 2020

When Australia was introduced to bottled water in the late 1980s, we all thought it a joke. Thirty-eight years on we see walls of fridges overflowing with the bottled fluid. Touted to be an $825 million a year business in 2020, its masterminded marketing has made its mark and the joke is on us!

Over one million bottles of water are purchased globally every minute, 27 per cent of us drink a bottle a week and it is exorbitantly expensive compared to tap water. Why spend near 1,000 times more when you can effortlessly access our wonderful water for free.

Photo credit: Brian Yurastis from unsplashed.com

Premium natural mineral water, promoted for its purity is trending in Australia with 80 per cent of sales coming from hotels, restaurants, fitness clubs and airports in cities or tourist destinations. Consumers tend to be tourists and high-profile customers who demand premium products. Whilst markets don't explicitly criticise tap water, their implication of a superior product, tend to undermine it.

Growing health consciousness and consumer convenience along with strong economic growth is driving the bottled water industry. However, whilst 35 per cent of Australians prefer bottled water over tap and 29 per cent thought it was better for them, blind testing has shown just as many can't tell the difference and near 40 per cent of bottled water is, wait for it, tap water.

Australia's governance of tap water is strict with water utilities following 250 rigorous guidelines, monitoring everything from metals to microbiology; they boast near-100 per cent compliance, making Australia a world leader. Bottled water does not require the same standards and most common brands were found to contain minerals in excess of the Australian recommended guidelines.

Whilst you won’t find a fancy label on your faucet you will be beckoned by them on your bottle. References to glacial, mountain water and their accompanying artwork are meaningless, references to artesian and well water indicate it’s sourced from an underground aquifer which may or may not be treated and are tapped through a well. Spring water is collected as it flows to the surface or via a borehole at almost zero cost. New labelling laws may mean the signalling of source and be more reliable read.

Age, gender, culture, and lack of trust in water utilities contribute to the problem. Communities from countries with less governance and availability to clean drinking water demonstrate a cultural resistance to resist and hold on to an ingrained habit, to boil their water.

Whilst 60 per cent of Australians drink tap water, a typical Australian can drink over 30 litres of bottled water each year. Most of this consumption comes from the often under 40’s targeted fitness-conscious consumers, with women (29.7 per cent) more likely than men (24.5 per cent) to partake and this is said to rise 3 per cent per annum by 2021.

Increased uptake of water in your body leads to a better balance of body water, and fluids help in better digestion of food and in ridding toxins from the body. It is also easy to hydrate without worrying about calories; however, slurping every second could have serious repercussions. Over-hydration can lead to water intoxication where the amount of salt and other electrolytes in your body become dangerously diluted.

Although water does not expire, the plastic bottle does and will eventually start leaching chemicals into the water. Reusing one can provide a good breeding ground for bacteria and leaving them out in the heat is also harmful.

Environmentally they are atrocious. It requires over a litre of oil, a finite fossil fuel and a reducing resource, to produce just one litre of bottled water. Over 118,000 tonnes of plastic are purchased annually for their production and a considerable amount of freshwater is used in the manufacturing process. A litre of liquid purchased is likely to have wasted up to seven litres of water.

Potentially if 60 per cent of water bottles end up in landfills, Australians would be adding 70,000 tonnes of plastic to landfill annually. Other bottles will end up in the oceans where it is predicted to  contain more plastic than fish come 2050.

Photo credit: Tanvi Sharma from unsplashed.com

The successful Container Deposit Systems in SA have only more recently taken off in other states. Coke and Schweppes fought tooth and nail against the scheme and are only now indicating their preparedness to use 100 per cent recycled plastic to produce their bottles. Plastic degrades and whilst they assure us that contaminates will be removed and bottles stamped identifying the number of times they’re recycled, I’m to be yet convinced. It is expected that plastic alternatives will be available soon, and with technology producing plastic-like bottles from more natural and regenerative materials like algae, this appears to be a far better solution than recycled plastic bottles which are just as harmful as any plastic in the ocean.

After the water is pumped from the ground, bottled, and packaged, it is then transported to a store near you and chilled awaiting purchase. This protracted process generates more than 60,000 tons of greenhouse gasses annually. Furthermore, Australia imports water from Fiji and as far away as Italy and France. The manufacture and transport of the plastic bottles for all this water requires over 460,000 barrels of oil.

Plastic bottles are one of the greatest contributors to pollution. Whilst recycling makes a big difference by using less raw materials and resources the bottles used to package water, like other plastics, can take up to 1,000 years to bio-degrade. This essentially means that every piece of plastic that has ever been made still exists in one form or another.

With less than 40 per cent of water bottles being recycled, the balance ends up in landfill or in our waterways. Decomposing bottles leach into our environment, predominately carcinogenic, neurotoxic toxins and endocrine disruptors, causing health issues, including reproductive problems, diabetes, obesity and high blood pressure among many others. Few plastics are being incinerated and governments are suggesting the same however, if incinerated, they produce toxic fumes causing further pollution and health problems.

Industry spoke persons claim bottled water has one of the lowest environmental footprints of any commercial beverage industry; that Australian bottlers lead the way in new technologies designed to minimise the environmental impact of their product; and that the industry has been supporting governments that want to introduce container-deposit schemes They acknowledge the waste problem does concern consumers and welcome strong labelling an consumer laws to control practices.

Growing numbers of people are dumping the dreaded water bottle and turning on the taps. Bundanoon in New South Wales decided to ban them. Cafes are bringing back the good ole glass and providing water refill stations and some selling refillable receptacles. Councils are rolling out refill stations in parks along walk and cycle paths and at their sportsgrounds. People are purchasing quality and personal reusable bottles however even please heed, high-quality reusable BPA-free plastic water bottles still may contain BPF, BPS and a whole host of other additives that are just as harmful as BPA. And for those of us who feel we need water free of fluoride and chlorine, there are a host of fixed or free filter systems available to use at home. Governments can pass more stringent laws and start by discouraging the use of plastic bottles by banning their use in government functions and offices. And we can begin in our own homes and make the necessary changes to reduce the use of bottled water.

We live in a country where good governance leads to a safe supply. The challenge is to manage it carefully, so it's protected and distributed fairly, and wastage kept to a minimum to maintain our population health, economic growth and environmental sustainability.

Re-usable produce bgs.
Photo credit: Markus Spiske from unsplashed.com

We can all work to reduce our usage of single use plastic, reuse and recycle where possible, and tackle this monumental problem head on for the future of our oceans and marine animals. As a society we can do this, but it will take courage, discipline and for manufacturers to forego other incentives and make responsible decisions for the benefit and good of our global world.

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