29th July 2014

Turn back to your taps

THE next time you reach for bottled water stacked on the supermarket shelf, spare a thought for the planet. You may think that it is better for you to buy such water, but better for the environment it certainly is not. Despite its pure image, bottled water is making a significant contribution to climate change. The industry produces as much greenhouse gas as the electricity consumption of about 20,000 homes in a year, according to research by The Times.

To supply the more than two billion litres of bottled water that is consumed by Britons every year, a quarter of which comes from abroad, bottled-water companies produce 33,200 tonnes of CO2 emissions, just less than the electricity consumption of 20,000 households, and the equivalent of the energy needs of 6,000 households.

The principal environmental cost comes from transport — about a fifth of bottles come from southeast France, about 600 miles (1,000km) away — but there are also costs involved in the manufacture and disposal of bottles. Evian transports its water about 930km from Lake Geneva, producing about 14,000 tonnes of CO2 in the process. Volvic, whose water comes from Auvergne, produces about 9,000 tonnes. British suppliers, with smaller distances to travel, are less environmentally costly. Highland Spring, whose plant is in Blackford, Perthshire, produces about 5,500 tonnes each year, while Powwow produces an estimated 3,000 tonnes. Most water bottles are made from PET plastic, a crude-oil extract that accounts for about 0.25 per cent of the world’s annual oil consumption.

The majority end up in landfill sites, where they take about 450 years to break down, or are incinerated. Of the 10 per cent of bottles that are recycled, more than half are shipped to countries such as China, 13,000km away, to be processed, and produce around half a million kilos of CO2 emissions getting there. The industry said that it was unreasonable to single out bottled water for transport-associated costs because natural mineral waters had tastes “characteristic of the places they come from” for which people were willing to pay. Companies said that bottle production used about 30 per cent less plastic than ten years ago. Next year one company, Belu, will use Britain’s first biodegradable bottle, which is made out of corn and will “compost” back into soil in ten weeks. “There is no doubt that all consumer industries have issues with products, including waste and packaging, but bottled water is one of the most responsible industries, partly because water is the end product, so companies treat the environment with respect,” Richard Hall, the chairman of Zenith International, a drinks consultancy, said. But environmental groups have urged consumers to return to tap water, which they say is 10,000 times cheaper, just as healthy and far less environmentally costly. “Bottled water ranks alongside patio heaters as one of the absurd producers of greenhouse gas emissions,” Mike Childs, the head of campaigns at Friends of the Earth, said. He recommended using filters if consumers wanted to remove the taste of chlorine. A standard carbon tap filter costs about £35. A report by the Earth Policy Institute this week concluded that of the 154 billion litres of bottled water consumed globally each year, about a quarter had been imported, a fact disputed by the industry, which says that the figure is closer to 3 per cent.

Evian exports about 50 per cent of its water to more than 120 countries. Volvic exports about 60 per cent. The report accused some producers of disrupting the water supply of local communities. The water-extraction facilities for Coca-Cola’s Dasani line in India, for example, had caused water shortages in more than 50 villages, it said. Bob Geldof, who has worked on water conservation issues in Africa, said: “It is the great irony of the 21st century that the most basic things in the supermarket, such as water and bread, cost the most. Getting water from the other side of the Earth to sell here is ridiculous.” Last year the bottled-water market was worth £1.7 billion in Britain, and analysts predict that the market will grow at a rate of 9 per cent per year over the next five years, largely because of an increasing awareness of the importance of drinking plenty of water, and the fact that more consumers are choosing healthy alternatives to sugary drinks. The carbonated soft-drinks market, by contrast, fell by about 5 per cent in 2004.

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