Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Bottled water vs tap water

I was listening to Triple J on the way home and Hack was doing a piece on the town of Bundanoon, which is just up on the highlands from us, and their plan to ban bottled water. And now it looks like the NSW Premier is following suite and phasing out the use of bottled water in NSW government departments and is planning a public campaign to discourage people from using bottled water.

I really support discouraging the use of bottled water if there is an easy to access supply of tap water. Our office tea room has always had a chilled filtered water spout for filling bottles and I would certainly prefer to fill up my glass for free as often as a like during the day than have to buy bottled water. I'm not sure if a ban is the way to go, but in the case of workplaces where it is fairly easy to install chilled filtered water fountains for staff use, then I think that's actually a nice policy that sets a good example.

I support encouraging people to drink water for both hydration and as a healthier alternative to soft drinks. I certainly don't like the unsustainable aspects of bottled water production. To me, it's excessive processing, packaging, and transport to provide something that for most people they can get for a fraction of the cost from the tap, and it hasn't had to travel anywhere near as far. I don't have as much of a problem with the concept of bottled water as essentially a boutique drink (i.e. you're purchasing the unique characteristics of water from a particular place) than I have with it being used as an alternative to perfectly acceptable tap water purely because of convenience. That is more typical of the "want it now" convenience attitude that disregards unsustainable processes and production in favour of something that requires little or no effort on the part of the consumer.

I think there are three main reasons that people drink bottled water:
  1. the tap water is not potable
  2. the tap water is drinkable, but you prefer the taste of bottled water
  3. you don't mind tap water, but when you're out, there aren't always convenient places to fill a bottle up or you don't have a bottle with you, so the only option is to buy water if you want to drink water instead of soft drink (probably because you're health conscious).
My guess is that in Australia, the biggest group would be the third lot, where the issue is more that of availability and convenience than a distinct aversion to tap water. I'm in the third group. I don't like soft drink. If we're traveling and I get thirsty, I'll buy bottled water. However, at home and work, I drink tap water. I also tend to have a bottle of tap water in the car with me. When that runs out, I buy bottled water and am often annoyed that I have to pay more for it than some sugar, colouring, and preservative loaded soft drink.

I think the key is providing an alternative. In cities that have perfectly drinkable tap water, providing places for people to fill up with filtered, chilled tap water, for minimal cost, is going to be the key to getting people to switch from bottled water. I think if the choice started to become available, most people would take the cheaper option over bottled water. Once that is set up, a ban is probably not necessary as the main consumers will be those people who are purchasing the water for its taste (same as someone would buy a bottle of coke because they like the taste) and those who are purchasing it because they don't have drinkable tap water.

I can see this becoming a bit like alternatives to plastic bags. It took a bit for the idea to take off, but once the major supermarkets started supplying "green bags" for purchase at the checkout it was easier to buy reusable bags, and then it is just getting into the habit of bringing the bags to the supermarket. The plastic bags are still there, but there are places that now charge for plastic bags (e.g. ALDI) and I don't think it will be long before paying for plastic bags is required. There will always be some people who will use plastic bags, and pay for them, because of the convenience factor (and we can glare disdainfully at them as we fill up our reusable green bags).

If you could convince major outlets like supermarkets, fast food chains, and service stations to have a filtered water refill station (for a small refill fee), then I think it won't take that long for people to get into the habit of having a reusable bottle with them. And if you can purchase a reusable bottle along with the refill, then that makes it all the more easier. Once a pattern is established it is a strong incentive for cafes and other stores that would normally stock bottled water to consider a filtered water fountain. Most office-type workplaces should also be able to provide filtered water without much difficulty. I would also love to see how the Bundanoon proposal of having filtered water fountains in the main street goes as that would be great if Councils could consider free filtered water fountains. Outdoors ones are probably targets for vandals, but perhaps having them in Council facilities such as swimming pools, libraries, halls etc.. would work.

I can also see the reusable bottles being a great marketing tool and potential fashion item, as it would be easy for companies to come up with funky designs. Just look at all the "green" bags out there that are used to promote all kinds of things and also as trendy fashion statements.

So I think this idea has merit and it certainly has my support. I look forward to seeing how Bundanoon go with their proposal and the proposed public campaign that the Premier has suggested.

    1 comment:

    1. I am with you on reason number 3 for drinking water. I only buy bottled water when I am thirsty and am out, and choose water as an alternative to soft drinks or juice. I try to take a bottle of water with me, but sometimes I forget, or it's not practical or possible (ie. when going though airport security). At home, I drink tap water, and also use it in the soda syphon to make fizzy water (which I also love). If my ability to consume cold water commercially is revoked, I think there should be an alternative water supply available. Otherwise, what choice will I have? Diet coke *bllleaaaacchhh*

      And then guess depends on *where* offices, councils and corporations get their water for their refill station. In my building, we have water available, but comes in giant 19L water bottles which are attached to the water cooler. On the plus side, it's bottled locally (from the Bronte springs in the Yorkshire Pennines) and the giant water plastic water bottles are reused. However I find the tap water in Yorkshire extremely drinkable, so I usually try and go to the kitchen and drink there. But again, convenience dictates that sometimes I will grab water from the cooler...

      This issue is alive and well in the UK - see and so it's trendy to ask loudly for tap water in posh restaurants to show your support.

      And as always... love your blog!