Bottled Water in Hot Water

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An increasing population, growing needs and rising pollution… there is no doubt that changes need to happen in several part of our lives if we don’t want to empty the resources of our earth. Let’s look at the case of water, for example. The names “San Pellegrino” and “Aquafina” are well known to all of us; most of us have probably even bought a bottle or two without really thinking about it. But today, this is the very discussion on the table, as some politicians propose ideas that challenge our ideas of consumption and question bottled water.

Upon reflection, consuming bottled water is illogical. People all around the world are ready to pay between five hundred and a thousand times more for water in bottles. Some are even ready to pay more than 500 dollars for a “deluxe” bottle of water, some bottles are even sold around 60’000 dollars. Of course the reason is that commercials have succeeded in creating a new need in consumers. More than half a billion bottles of water are sold to Americans every week . Even in small Switzerland, more than a billion bottles are sold annually to its seven million inhabitants, even if local tap water is proven to be of excellent quality.

And one does not need to be clueless about environmental issues or uneducated to believe these advertisements. While travelling through the United States of America last summer, I once bought a bottle of Italian water, just because I knew the brand (whereas I did not know the others). I must say that I feel foolish now. When purchasing bottled water which has been sourced at a foreign location, there is more consumption than the half litre of petrol required to produce a bottle of water , because all these bottles need to travel from Italy to the USA. I am also sceptical as to whether this water really tastes better than other ones, or if I am just another victim of advertising.

Of course, in some areas of the world, bottled water is the only source to be trusted for clean drinking water (Mexicans even bathe their children in bottled water). Lloyd Axworthy, a former Canadian Foreign Minister, said in 1999 that “water has become a highly precious resource. There are some places where a barrel of water costs more than a barrel of oil” (Lloyd Axworthy, Foreign Minister of Canada, 1999 News Conference).  Nowadays, his sentence is even truer as water and oil are not as distinct regarding their ecological relevance. Leaving aside the issues of scarcity, let’s just explore the relationship between these two commodities that the world is ready to fight over. In fact, Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) – the stuff that these bottles are made from – is derived from pure petrol and – according to the Pacific Institute – the U.S. production of water bottles requires more than 17 million barrels of petrol annually.

Jacques Neirynck, a Swiss politician and professor at the EPLF (Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology based in Lausanne), put forth a motion to forbid the sale of water in PET bottles in Switzerland. He argued that the sale of water in PET bottles is a waste of energy; that it occurs due to marketing manipulation; and that it is allowed because of political apathy. In his book , he claims that “bottled water is the symbol of a crazy society, in which the clever ones exploit the stupid ones” (2009: Les scandales de l’eau en bouteilles, Editions Favre).

Not long ago, in 2006 in France, a brand advertised bottled water saying that people claiming tap water to taste good were not the ones drinking it often . We cannot deny that tap water contains chemicals and sometimes even more than bottled water – among them chlorine, which protects water against germs. However, a study by the University of Neuchâtel (Switzerland) showed that bottled water is more polluted by bacteria than Swiss tap water. Public water is strongly controlled and does not contain any dangerous substances.

More problematic is the pollution that the bottles themselves represent. Unfortunately, there are still around four billion PET bottles that end up in the waste stream in the USA, and their clean-up costs go upward to 70 million dollars  for some cities. If left in a landfill, these bottles will take up to a thousand years to decompose. Even in Switzerland, with one of the highest recycling rates in the world, around 78 percent of PET bottles are recycled; the rest is either burned or left in the environment. In the European Union, the recycling rate is around 51% while in the USA, it is much lower, with only 29% of recycled bottles.

But are the crystal clear ecological facts enough to abandon the bottled water industry? Some argue that more than a thousand jobs would be endangered only in Switzerland; the number remains, of course, questionable. The Swiss bottled water producers attacked the project claiming it goes against the free will of consumers. On one hand, they are right, because the change should begin at the individual level. The problem remains that advertisement is made to make you think that bottled water is better, even ecologically friendly.

Though the Swiss government did not eventually approve Neirnyck’s motion, the project is not dead in all the countries. In Canada, the idea went further and several cities, e.g. Toronto, forbid the sale of plastic bottled water in public places. The question is now raised in other countries. There is no doubt that we need to reconsider our consumption. It is, however, not only a political problem but also a very individual one.

Do we really need to consume bottled water, or is this need only built up by successful marketing?

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