Upon being seated at an upscale restaurant in Johannesburg not long ago, hearing about the menu from the waiter and actually ordering our meal, we were then asked what we might like to drink. Ignoring the two bottles of wine and one bottle of water already on the table, we asked for two glasses of tap water, with ice. The immediate response was an unsmiling negative – no, we only serve bottled water. No, we said, we only drink tap water. Back and forth without any sign that the chap was weakening. We called for the manager, who promptly appeared and even much more sternly told us absolutely not, no tap water. We said we’d then leave. He urged us to do so.
That little tale is as much about the woeful state of the service industry in the country as it is about the scam of bottled water, but still it is a good introduction to the following, reprinted by permission of the author, Donald McCallum (Wits School of Animal, Plant and Environmental Sciences).
Riding the wave of the bottled water marketing myth
It is truly staggering what good marketing can achieve. To create a growing consumer base for something as readily available as clean drinking water and to sell it at more than 1000 times the cost of tap water has to be admired.
It takes up to three litres of tap water to produce one litre of bottled water. At around R6 for a 500ml bottle of water, compared to less than half a cent for tap water, bottled water is more costly than petrol, even after the latest increase. The promotion of bottled water has been so successful that organisations, even local government, will commit their limited resources to supplying bottled water at events. I am personally not comfortable with my taxes being spent on something that can be almost free, and which is a constitutional right for all.
In September 2010, the Mail & Guardian reported that bottled water is the second fastest growing beverage in the country. The value of the world market for bottled water in 2011 was estimated to be around R629 billion.
In South Africa, this translates into a staggering 1.2 trillion plastic bottles a year – most of which litter the streets, leaving an unwelcome legacy for our children. The material and energy required to produce the packaging and distribution of bottled water is in excess of 200 million barrels of oil.
Claims that bottled water is a green product do not stand up to scrutiny. One needs to contrast the idyllic settings of bottled water advertising with the heaps of empty bottles at disposal sites and those that litter the countryside.
The production of bottled water uses more water than the rate at which it is purchased – up to three litres of tap water or more is needed to produce one litre of bottled water.
How is this possible? People seem to be more concerned about making healthy choices today, and water is definitely a healthy option. The problem is that there is a perception that the health benefits of water apply more to bottled water than to tap water. This is not the case. There are rigorous standards that tap water must meet in Johannesburg, and the quality is constantly monitored. Presently, the quality of tap water in Johannesburg is of the best in the world.
Recently beverage company Coca Cola was under pressure in the USA to acknowledge that some brands of the water that it sells are bottled from municipal supplies. The words ‘bottled at source’ have a very different meaning when the ultimate source is an ordinary tap. The requirements for water quality in the USA are far more stringent for public supplies than for bottled water, so consumers’ faith in the ‘purity’ of bottled water may be misplaced.
There are also subtle social pressures. It is so much ‘cooler’ to be seen to be drinking bottled water rather than free tap water. For some, it may feel awkward to order tap water at a restaurant. The price paid for bottled water is only one part of a much greater environmental cost.
Growing opposition. While the demand for bottled water increases with many new brands and massive advertising campaigns, there is also growing opposition. At least 70 cities in the USA, Canada, UK and Australia have banned the use of bottled water. The World Wide Fund for Nature and Greenpeace both advocate the use of tap water wherever good quality supplies exist. A recent victory for the environment has been the banning of bottled water in the Grand Canyon National Park in the USA.
Save money, save the environment. Order tap water at restaurants. Get yourself a suitable bottle for re-using and fill up at taps or drinking fountains (the plastic bottles in which water is packaged are not suitable for re-use; when exposed to heat - for example when left in a car - the bottles can release toxic chemicals). A good alternative is stainless steel bottles, which are durable and long lasting.
Use your influence to prevent the unnecessary use of bottled water. Encourage your organisation to do the right thing and lead by example. Donate the money you save by drinking tap water to your favourite charity!