The ubiquity of bottled water
My university has joined in the bottled water craze. I have just seen UPM’s bottled water about two weeks ago. Though the water is purified tap water and not groundwater or springwater, we, the lecturers, were unashamedly gulping it down once they started to distribute the bottles. Faster than you can say “Universiti Putra Malaysia”, some lecturers were already half done with their bottled water.
If you have seen our bottled water, you would agree that it is small, petite, and cute. Nice to see, nice to hold, and very nice to drink as well. And if you are a UPM staff, you would also feel, well, all patriotic by drinking your university’s very own water.
How did we get conned into drinking bottled water? This is the question asked by Elizabeth Royte in her book “Bottlemania: How it went on sale and why we bought it“. The insidious marketing attempts by bottled water companies have certainly paid off handsomely. In the US, sale of bottled water has surpassed that for milk and beer, and it is just second to soda (soft drinks). And if current sale trends continue, more Americans would be drinking bottled water than soda by 2011.
We were conned into drinking bottled water because we believed the hype. We believed bottled water is cleaner, healthier, and more convenient. This is what the marketers told us, and we believed them. In a limited study done in Malaysia by Aini et al. (2007), for example, 86% of those surveyed in Seremban believed their tap water was either poor or very poor.
And yet, science tells us otherwise. On-the-street tests have shown that people cannot differentiate between tap water and bottled water. Laboratory tests have revealed that tap water is neither cleaner nor dirtier than bottled water. Additionally, tests have shown that some bottled water actually contained dangerous elements (such as antimony and bisphenol A) that were leached from the plastic bottle into the water and bacteria. In other words, laboratory tests revealed no clear winner between bottled water and tap water.
Also consider the fact that water treatment plants (those that supply clean water into house taps) are regulated and monitored tightly by the government, but those that supply bottled water are not. In other words, there would be “hell to pay” if water treatment plants supply unsafe water to households, but there is little regulation for bottled water companies and, well, UPM.
Most of all, bottled water is environmental unfriendly. According to a study by Gleick et al. (2006), bottled water production consumes between 1100 to 2000 times more energy than that for tap water. In US, the energy required for the production of bottled water, including its transportation and disposal, is equivalent to 32 to 54 million barrels of oil per year. In 2007, Americans consumed a whopping 33 billion litres of water. One barrel of oil is about 159 litres, so this would mean that for every one litre of bottled water, about 0.25 litre of oil is required. If your head aches with all these advanced mathematics, just imagine a one-litre bottled water that is one-quarter full of oil — that is the amount of oil needed to produce your bottled water.
In addition to requiring vast amount of energy, bottled water also depletes groundwater sources. For instance, two litres of groundwater is required to produce one litre of bottled water. This net loss means if the consumption of bottled water keeps increasing, the extraction of underground water would become unsustainable. In other words, we extract more than what can be replenished from rivers and rain. Though Malaysia is blessed with ample rain, other countries are not. In some countries like India, groundwater is already depleting every year, so bottled water demand only exacerbates the problem.
And if demand for bottled water increases, this puts pressure not to regulate tap water as tightly as before. Why spend the effort, time, and cost to ensure clean tap water if no one is going to drink it anyway? So if consumption of bottled water becomes a replacement for tap water, then don’t be surprised if one day, our tap water is classified as gray water – suitable only for washing but not for drinking. If you wanna drink, you just have to get out and buy yourself a bottled water (which, by the way, costs more than oil in Malaysia).
Aini, M.S., A. Fakhrul-Razi, O. Mumtazah and J.C. Meow Chen. 2007. Malaysian households’ drinking water practices: A case study. International Journal of Sustainable Development & World Ecology, 14, 503-510.
Gleick, P.H., H. Cooley, D. Katz and E. Lee. 2006. The World’s Water 2006-2007: The Biennial Report on Freshwater Resources. Washington DC: Island Press.
Royte, E. 2008. Bottlemania. How water went on sale and why we bought it. New York: Bloomsbury.